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CD Reviews – August 2017

THE COMMONHEART – GROWN (no label) Formed in 2014 by singer Clinton Clegg and drummer Shawn McGregor, The Commonheart has quickly evolved into one of Pittsburgh’s most exciting exports to the music world, and their debut album, Grown, offers clear testimony as to why. Eight members strong including backing singers and a horn section, The Commonheart merges rock, blues and soul flavors with a gospel fervor over Grown’s 11 tracks. Front and center throughout the album, Clegg sings, barks and growls with a rugged voice that recalls peak period Joe Cocker and Bob Seger, mixed with the fervor and intensity of a classic fire-and-brimstone preacher. Mike Minda’s lead guitar work, Lucas Bowman’s keys and guest Skip Sanders’ organ work, and tight rhythms from McGregor and bassist Ava Lintz pack punch behind the songs, while trumpeter Nate Insko and saxophonist Elyse Louise provide just the right brass accents in the right places. The resulting sound often recalls classic 1960s/1970s-era Memphis and Motown with a hearty punch. The disc-opening “Who Dat Mama” sets the tone with a bold, swaggering groove; while “Hard Way” sets a funkier pace. Riding along a prominent bass drum beat, hand claps and some sharp slide guitar work, “Aloysius” builds into a boisterous, gospel-flavored eruption. The Commonheart delivers some stunning slower numbers as well, such as the soulful and bluesy “Cannonball” with its escalating arrangement, the slow-building soul thunderstorm “You Need a Man” and the search for salvation “Save Me.” Mikey Deluca’s acoustic guitar picking backs Clegg on two thoughtful numbers, “Rivertown” and the disc-ending “Spain,” and the group gives a feisty and funky update to Al Green’s classic “I’m a Ram.” The performances are bold and energetic, as the band plays for keeps and Clegg sinks intensity and personality into every song. The arrangements are captivating and dynamic, and the production enables the group to retain edge and fullness. Grown is an exciting debut album that taps classic soul roots and channels them into a fresh, invigorating celebration. This album proudly establishes The Commonheart as a force to be reckoned with. (The CD can be obtained through the website

MARSHMELLOW OVERCOAT – MARSHMELLOW OVERCOAT (no label) Singer and songwriter Tyler Calkins in 2008 began his journey of exploring the songwriting styles of the 1960s and 1970s. That exploration led to the formation of his band vehicle, Marshmellow Overcoat. The Bradford-based group’s self-titled fifth album continues the journey, as Calkins (who sings and plays guitar, piano and harmonica), guitarist Alan Hancock, bassist Jason Wood and drummer Anthony Cavallaro craft catchy numbers rooted in 1960s and 1970s pop songcraft, particularly the Beatles and the Monkees, blended with a contemporary indie-pop edge. Marshmellow Overcoat’s brand of “classic rock for today” is defined by mostly short, punchy, efficient melodies with quick-hitting hooks and payoff choruses, brought forth by Calkins’ raspy, almost Lennon-like lead vocal and the group’s tight, balanced backdrops. Mostly written by Calkins, the lyrics tend toward contemplative and even psychedelic themes. He sings about music as a soaring journey on “Tune of the Turning World,”, and waxes abstract on “Wander and They Fly.” The group lyrically reveals the origin of their name on the title song “Marshmellow Overcoat,” which classic rockers The Band almost used for their own name. Several songs explore the cosmic effects of the ups and downs of love; “The Room Spins Around” muses about the dizzying effects of love, while “Snow Lights” and “River of Stars” explore love’s bliss. However, signals get crossed on “See the Plan,” and broken love is left behind on “I Can’t Help You Anymore” and “Back to Earth.” Marshmellow Overcoat also offers their spin on the traditional number “Cold Rain and Snow” as one of two bonus tracks (the other is a piano version of “Tune of the Turning World”). The performances are tight and the song arrangements are consistent, giving the album a comfortable, even flow from start to end. Recorded and mixed by Rick Gercak at College Park Recorders near Pittsburgh, Marshmellow Overcoat sounds basic and smooth, with the instruments sounding distinct and Calkins’ words ringing through clean and clear. Marshmellow Overcoat understands their musical turf on this album, and again successfully merges classic pop rock songcraft with a fresh, contemporary edge. (The CD can be obtained through the group’s website,


LAIKA, THE ASTRO-HOUND – KAIROS (My Idea Of Fun) Named after the famous Soviet canine that became the first animal to orbit the Earth, Johnstown-based foursome Laika, the Astro-Hound explores death and the emotions surrounding it on their latest full-length album, Kairos. Featuring singer, keyboardist and chief songwriter Sean T. Jackson, bassist/singer Dallas Zimmerman, guitarist Matthew Shawley and drummer/electronics performer Gerald Mattis; Laika, the Astro-Hound presents a piano-driven, modern rock/pop sound that recalls the alternative piano rock of Ben Folds Five, as well as the progressive/ambient flavorings of Radiohead and Porcupine Tree. After experiencing the death of his sister, mother, and other friends and relatives, Sean’s lyrics ponder the grieving process, reflections and realizations about appreciating quality time with loved ones. Sean considers the hereafter and where souls go on the opening track “Can You Hear Me,” and the passage of time and life on “End of All Things.” Sean uses a somber Pink Floyd-like vibe to explore symbolism and metaphor on “Family Tree,” and recounts childhood grieving and spiritual awakening on the dreamy “Died at Five.” A space-rock arrangement propels “Life & Nature’s Little Nuances,” and Sean’s lesson about appreciating life’s little things. “Impermanence” realizes that everything is temporary in this world, while “Phone-line to Heaven” yearns to communicate with those who have left us. The songs are intelligent, captivating and cleverly arranged, with Sean’s piano and soaring voice weaving prominent threads through the entire set. His words communicate both his sense of loss, as well as his epiphanies about the cycle of life. Self-recorded and produced, Kairos sounds spontaneous and loose, allowing space for the performances to breathe and stretch with only minimal studio gloss. Laika, the Astro-hound delivers a thoughtful and cohesive set with Kairos, an album of insight and enlightenment that reminds listeners to cherish moments with loved ones and to share love while you are here to do so. (The album can be downloaded for free via the group’s Bandcamp page, or the CD can be obtained through the website


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