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CD Reviews – June 2018

JIM DONOVAN & THE SUN KING WARRIORS – WE SEE THROUGH IT (no label) Former Rusted Root drummer Jim Donovan introduced a fresh new band and a fresh new sound on their 2016 self-titled Sun King Warriors debut CD. Jim and his group – bassist Kent Tonkin, percussionists Harry Pepper and Bryan Fazio, drummer Joe Marini, guitarist Kevin McDonald and multi-instrumentalist Dan Murphy – up the energy and the ante on the follow-up, We See Through It. The group taps into a more vigorous, blues-rocking vein for most of the album’s 10 tracks, while preserving the world music essence of the debut CD and Jim’s work with Rusted Root. The performances are more confident, invested and even agitated, the overall sound is edgier, and the group even vents veiled social commentary. The primary vibe of the album is celebratory; the disc-opener “The Last Dance” is a bouncy, tropical-toned celebration of life’s cycle that offers encouragement to live each moment to its fullest while you can. Jim celebrates family several times on the album; expressing maximum excitement about his wife Tracey on “You Are My Everything,” which starts as a raucous Black Keys-toned romp before exploding into a hyperspeed finish. “Long Lost Friend” and “Love Is Right” both celebrate the realizations of love; the latter explores how love endures through thick and thin, with a heavy-rocking midsection bridging the song’s tranquil start and end. “You In My Arms” is Jim’s joyous ode to daughter Tupelo, who sings backing vocals along with Jim’s other daughter, Ella. Several songs celebrate personal discovery and the moment: “We Have Arrived” appreciates now, “Ahh. Can You Feel It?” revels in arriving in contentment, and the hard-rocking “Hey! Let It Be” applauds the triumph of conscience. Jim and the Sun King Warriors consider the current state of society and the world; the reggae-flavored title track “We See Through It” calls on listeners to ignore the voices that seek to divide, embrace each other and celebrate commonality as a unified people. The disc closes with the percussive “Elephants In The Room,” as Jim, Bryan and Harry bring three-plus minutes of booming, elephantine drum thunder. The performances are enthusiastic, vibrant and invigorating; listeners should immediately sense that this band had a blast putting this album together. The musicians give all here, from the constantly busy rhythms to Kevin’s hot guitar soloing, Dan’s harmonica wails and mandolin nuances to the rowdy gang-shout choruses that ring out in many of the songs. Contributions from notable guests – such as Jim’s aforementioned daughters and son Oliver, plus his former Rusted Root colleagues Liz Berlin and Jenn Wertz – both flesh out and elevate the sound. Produced, mixed and recorded by Sean McDonald at Pittsburgh’s Red Medicine Recording Studios, We See Through It rings out with brightness, fullness and excitement. We See Through It provides a joyous, heartwarming and fulfilling listen from start to end, and deserves to provide a happy soundtrack for summertime drives and outdoor picnics. This is a great-sounding, great-feeling album well worth checking out. (The CD can be obtained through CD Baby and other online outlets.)

 

NAG CHAMPIONS MYSTERY BAND – EARTHWORKS (no label) Formed two springs ago by some seasoned musicians from the northern Cambria County music scene, the Nag Champions Mystery Band embarked on a rock music-based mission to “explore infinity while embracing the unknown.” That adventurous spirit permeates the dozen tracks of the group’s second CD, Earthworks. Deriving their name from a brand of incense (Nag Champa), the group’s core of singer, guitarist and harmonica player Derek Gresh, percussionist Ed Hofer and multi-instrumentalist Tim Homerski delivers a freewheeling, often improvisational mixture of sounds, spanning Americana folk and blues to psychedelia, tribal music, space rock, reggae and more. Several musical guests help them along the journey, including bassist Josh Yahner, guitarist C. Leo Bloomfield, and singers Kate Rhodes and Tina Gresh. Every song is different, and the diversity of flavors prevents this album from ever becoming redundant or boring. “Weary Mind’s Eye” starts the album off innocently enough, establishing a gentle, folksy, back porch vibe and words about yearning for tranquility. Guitar distortion then gives way to reggae on “Daylight Apparitions,” followed by straight-ahead rock on “Dust Dancers” and the folksy “Brown River Blues.” Nag Champions sonically explores the cosmos on the Hendrix-toned instrumental “Space Drifter,” and evokes Hawkwind-flavored space rock on “(Stuck On) Dream Time.” They dabble in Stones-geared blues rock on “Stone Hymns,” and lay down some Beatles “Revolution”-toned electric boogie on “Incognito.” “Jokers and Fools” explores mystic native American soundscapes, while the cavernous, percussion and flute-driven instrumental “Lost Mountain” taps shades of Andean tribal folk. The melodies are simple and catchy, and Derek sings the simple lyrical themes with a relaxed, unimposing presence. The instrumental numbers demonstrate plentiful improvisation as Nag Champions and their guests seize the moment and let their muse guide them. Self-produced by the band and recorded at Ed Hofer’s Hoffer Studio in Patton, Earthworks sounds balanced and clear, with instruments and improvisations sounding distinct in the mix. Earthworks reveals musical friends throwing caution to the wind and indulging their whims, resulting in an eclectic, intriguing listen. (The CD can be obtained through Nag Champions Mystery Band’s website, www.nagchampions.com.)

WHISKEY PIE – LIFESTYLES OF THE POOR & LONELY (Ridge Records) From Dubois, Whiskey Pie is the brainchild project of the father-and-son tandem of Paul and Brian McLaughlin. Their CD, Lifestyles of the Poor & Lonely, offers listeners a freewheeling, unpredictable journey that explores elements of delta blues, jazz, R&B, hip-hop, worldbeat and more. Whiskey Pie plus several musical friends jam, improvise, sing, talk and sample their way through eight unique and diverse numbers, letting their muses and imaginations guide the way. Launching the disc, the title track “Lifestyles of the Poor & Lonely” slinks along a creepy keyboard riff, setting the backdrop for spoken and sung passages comparing the have’s and the have-not’s. “The Ode to Jesse Custer” is a boisterous and distortion-laden bluesy tribute to a DC Comics character, a “barroom prophet” who is “saving souls and kicking ass.” Guest DJ Jerzymatic’s beats underscore the hip hop-flavored “Bizness as Usual,” while guests DJ Cramski, guitarist Mike Elementree and percussionist Tony LaConga construct an Afrobeat-flavored exercise on “Sweatshop Funk.” Paul describes the dark-toned blues waltz “Pines” as “Leadbelly on a cold day,” before the disc closes with “You Always Gotta Have the Last Word,” where Paul on flute, Brian on cajon and guest Miki Lynn on drums slowly escalate a cigarette break-inspired improv jam into an expansive, heated instrumental interlude. The performances and presentation are loose and informal, as it becomes clear that Whiskey Pie and their guests are letting hair down and having fun, and never taking this session too seriously. The mixture of styles and sounds – ranging between guitars, bass, drums and percussion, harmonica, flute and samples – makes each number its own self-contained adventure, with new nuances and curios revealed with repeat listens. Self-recorded, the sound quality is basic, varying between smooth and raw and capturing the musicians in the moment without polish or studio bells and whistles. Lifestyles of the Poor & Lonely makes for an interesting listening adventure, as Whiskey Pie and their musical friends throw caution and apprehensions to the wind, and deliver a freewheeling, free form set. (The CD can be obtained through Paul McLaughlin’s Facebook page.)

 

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