CD Reviews – April 2020

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ALYSSA HANKEY – AMERICAN SPIRIT (no label) Emerging from rural western Pennsylvania north of Pittsburgh, Alyssa Hankey has rapidly established herself throughout the region as a expressive, passionate singer and songwriter. Her latest album, American Spirit, is a strong set of acoustic compositions rooted in the traditional folk of Bob Dylan, the blue collar ethic of Bruce Springsteen, and the raw vocal intensity of Janis Joplin. Alyssa’s hearty voice is front and center throughout the album, and she packs emotion and purpose into her words. The album follows a loose theme of the American experience with references to the Vietnam War era and life in the western PA rust belt. Vietnam informs several songs; the disc-opener “1968” paints a picture of America at this point in time, from flower power hippies to military draftees and draft dodgers. “Remington John” documents a soldier who served and was wounded in Vietnam, only to suffer the psychological wounds of war afterward and see his job outsourced to Vietnam. Alyssa describes blue collar life on “The Way It Is,” survival in the rust belt on “The Flood,” and observes how bad things can happen to good people on the somber ode “The Good.” She laments being born too late for the vinyl record era and rejects current-day trendiness on “Idaho,” and sings about the life of a traveling musician on “Jukebox Baby.” Alyssa also offers two versions of her soulful ballad “Love Song,” a solo version and a duet version with Jason Gamble. Alyssa’s presentation is fearless and authentic; listeners can sense that she means every word she’s singing. The songs offer catchy melodies and simple arrangements of voice and guitar (with occasional bursts of harmonica), allowing Alyssa’s words and raw vocal delivery to provide the focus of attention from start to end. Alyssa Hankey channels the spirit of 1960s America, American folk and blues on American Spirit, yielding a strong set of heartfelt, personal music. (The CD can be purchased through CD Baby and online retailers, as well as through Alyssa’s website,

THE JAKOB’S FERRY STRAGGLERS – POISON RIVER (no label) Jacobs Ferry is a location near the Monongahela River in southwestern PA, near the center of the region from where the members of roots-inspired group The Jakob’s Ferry Stragglers hail. Their third studio album, Poison River displays the group’s brand and blend of traditional, old time-flavored bluegrass, folk, country and Americana music. The Stragglers – singer and guitarist Gary Antol, fiddle player and singer Libby Eddy, mandolin/fiddle player and singer Ray Bruckman, upright bass player Evan Bell (since replaced by Niko Kreider) and guest dobro player Jody Mosser – create uplifting sounds over the album’s ten tracks. Gary and Libby handle the primary singing duties, both displaying distinctive singing styles that complement each other well. And the whole group demonstrates masterful musicianship and vibrant song arrangements that bring out the best in each tune. The Jakob’s Ferry Stragglers mix up several flavors during the course of the album…Both the Gary-fronted album opener “Moonlight Gown” and the Libby-crafted fiddle instrumental “Hesper’s Waltz” offer slight Celtic folk touches. The driving title song “Poison River” features Libby ‘s powerful and emotional voice as she sings of rust belt despair and desolation. Libby’s energetic performance also shines on “St. Anne’s Prayer,” an ode of coal mining peril co-written by Frank Serio and the late Sue Cunningham. Libby also shows a tender side on the tranquil waltz “Things Take Time,” singing about motherly advice regarding patience. Gary’s bold and straightforward voice carries one of the album’s cover numbers, “You Never Even Knew My Name,” first created by Colorado’s Sweet Sunny South; and he also lends his calm presence to “The Homefront” as he longs for the comfort of home. Ray created two instrumentals that both showcase the instrumental talents of the group, the fast-paced “Benezette Blues” and the cycling “Don’t Go Across the Ocean.” And the album finishes with “When the Redbud Blooms,” a song brought to the band by West Virginia songwriter Ron Fletcher; the song and album finish with the sound of Ron singing the song’s words and melody over a phone. The performances are skilled and heartfelt, and listeners should be able to sense the warmth and joy that The Jakob’s Ferry Stragglers bring into this music. The album flows together nicely and gels as a complete set. The recording enables all voices and instruments to shine brightly. Poison River shows why The Jakob’s Ferry Stragglers are considered one of the rising names in folk and bluegrass circles. (The CD can be obtained through CD Baby and online music retailers, as well as through the group’s website,