CD Reviews – December 2020

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TED McCLOSKEY – THE LOST SEASON SESSIONS VOL. 2 – MONOTONY AND MADNESS (no label) When Ted McCloskey released his first pandemic-themed album – The Lost Season Sessions Vol. 1 – The Big Pause – earlier this year, he said he planned to release a new record for every season he was not out playing live shows. As the pandemic is still with us, Ted delivers as promised, issuing his follow-up pandemic-related album and 12th overall, called The Lost Season Sessions Vol. 2 – Monotony and Madness. Ted continues to musically explore his life and the world around him as COVID-19 and a political dumpster fire dominate news headlines, and he grapples with a year of mental and financial strain from not being able to earn his living as one of State College’s busiest live performers. This album displays a grittier, guitar-driven edge to underscore Ted’s edgy observations. He grows weary of the whole 2020 nightmare on the hard, soul-driven leadoff track “Precious Mess,” expressing disdain with confinement and the monotony of current-day reality. On the thundering “Downside of the Boom,” Ted observes a nation in big trouble economically, idealogically and spiritually, teetering on the edge of the abyss in this pandemic year. “Statues” considers the ongoing controversy of monuments to historical figures and their fates, weighing their historical significances against their flawed ideals and deeds. “Angels in the Street” recognizes those who have stood up against injustices and pointed cameras to expose wrongdoing in the streets. The raw and punchy “Invisible Man” addresses insensitivity and lack of empathy, while the redneck-tinged rocker “American Man-Child” satirizes petulant, anti-masking, self-proclaimed freedom fighters. Ted also includes a song he created last year, “(No Parking) This Side of Temporary,” pondering how high-rise construction has displaced mom-and-pop businesses and the “small town charm” of Happy Valley. Ted successfully constructs 11 songs that are each individually strong and captivating, yet work together as a cohesive whole set. The arrangements rock, groove and punch; and Ted’s words cleverly connect. Created, recorded and self-produced during this past summer, this album sounds full, balanced, nuanced and edgy. Like The Lost Season Sessions Vol. 1, Ted McCloskey’s latest album vibrantly expresses his thoughts and concerns about 2020 and society’s troubled current-day reality. The Lost Season Sessions Vol. 2 – Monotony and Madness presents edgy rock for our turbulent times. (The album can obtained through Ted McCloskey’s Bandcamp page.)

X’s FOR EYES – EVERYTHING’S FALLING APART (no label) Altoona’s X’s For Eyes has been throwing down high-velocity punk rock on central PA stages since 2010, and on their fourth and latest album, Everything’s Falling Apart, they show no signs of slowing down. Featuring the double-barreled vocal and guitar tandem of Tom Noel and Tim Mort, plus Oob on bass and Justin Fair on drums, X’s For Eyes floors the accelerator from the get-go and tears through the album’s seven tracks. Their tempos are fast and furious, their instrumental execution is tight and tense, and Tom and Tim hold nothing back on their scathing vocal deliveries, as they express heartfelt words on anxieties, ambitions, deceptions, paybacks, and social commentary. The album launches on a torrid pace with “A Moment Away,” with Tom at a crossroads and stressed out about what to do. Tim is anxious to grab life by the horns on the fast-firing and anthemic “I Don’t Wanna Wait,” and Tom expresses exasperation and heartbreak on “Empty.” Payback is promised on the acidic “Sooner or Later,” and distrust in the government machine and media hype inform the words of “My Enemy.” The songs are rapid fire and aggressive, yet each has a discernable and catchy melody. The performances are turbulent and enthusiastic, and X’s For Eyes’ pacing keeps this album tight and feverish through its entirety. The album sounds powerful and sharp, yet balanced with everything clear in the mix. X’s For Eyes hits a consistent, high-octane stride on Everything’s Falling Apart, offering fast, hard-hitting, exuberant punk rock. (The album can be obtained through X’s For Eyes’ Bandcamp page.)

NAG CHAMPIONS MYSTERY BAND – PEEL & REVEAL (no label) Describing themselves as “guys who dig rock ‘n’ roll music exploring infinity while embracing the unknown,” the Nag Champions Mystery Band continue their psychedelic-toned musical explorations on their third CD, Peel & Reveal. The northern Cambria County-based core roster of Derek Gresh on vocals, guitars, organ and harmonica; Tim Homerski on bass, keyboards and flute; and Ed Hofer on drums and percussion blend elements of rock, blues, Americana, folk, reggae, country and jam improvisation into a diverse-sounding mixture over the album’s dozen tracks. As demonstrated over their previous two albums, Nag Champions again shows both the knack for creating interesting melodies and an adventurous, explorative spirit that manifests itself in other psychedelic jams and workouts. Several the songs are hook-laden and infectious, especially the folksy opening track “Different Ways,” the gently-bouncing “Broken Arrow Girl” and driving “Big Web” with its cyclical melody. The Nag Champions channel a Santana-like Latino-rock vibe on the harder “Behind the Sky,” with guitars and keys breaking a sweat and Ed working out his hand percussion arsenal. The group taps into 1960s/70s-period psychedelia on several numbers; including the indie-flavored “Inverted World,” the expansive and kaleidoscopic “Side Trip,” and the psychedelic reggae of “Under the Water.” Nag Champions slows it down on the shadowy “Deep Ocean Burn,” and delves into slightly harder rock terrain with “A While Longer.” While this group likes their musical adventures, the whole album has relaxed and casual vibe to it, as the Nag Champions let the muse carry them through each song, freeing them to improvise and indulge freely. Recorded at Ed Hofer’s home studio in Patton, Peel & Reveal sounds crisp and consistent throughout, nicely balanced and full. Nag Champions continue to define and expand their musical scope on Peel & Reveal, resulting in an album that provides its fair share of catchy melodies and sonic adventurism. (The album can be obtained through the group’s Bandcamp website.)

W,E CAME FROM SPACE – ,WHILE YOU WERE AWAY, (no label) They came from space in 2013 to show us How to Be Human, their debut album. Musical adventurers from the cosmos of western PA, We Came From Space have returned with their second chapter, entitled While You Were Away. Time travelers from another aeon when long-form record albums were revered as iconic masterpieces, the intergalactic cast of guitarist and singer Dave Buzard, keyboardist and singer Bill Hubauer, bassist and singer Dave Hawk and drummer Tim Malone present 11 exquisite chunks of 1970s/80s-derived, progressive-edged arena rock. Hints of classic Styx, Kansas, Boston, Supertramp and Deep Purple are distilled into this stew of melodies and arrangements, which We Came From Space ferments into their own inventive and creative directions. Beyond the obvious musicality here, these guys are wordsmiths too, generating clever, observational and often sardonic lyrics about a world teetering between hope and haywire. The album’s beginning is hopeful, as the spacey harmony prelude “A Light Never Ending” leads into the group’s uplifting title song “We Came From Space,” expressing optimism about the promise of humanity’s advent. But the next song, the Beatlesque “Vivid Colours,” jumps into social commentary about deceitful leaders and fanatical followers. The progressive ska-driven “All Rights Reserved” laments how ideals become corporatized and corrupted. The high-powered, Deep Purple-toned “Business As Usual” ponders a troubled modern-day mediascape where divisions are amplified, mob mentalities rule, facts are ignored, false prophets profit, and logic is thrown out the window. Launched by Bill’s prominent keyboard riff, “Eye to Eye” observes the dehumanizing effects of digital communication, from cyberbullying to diminished human interaction. We Came From Space offers contemplation and introspection on the comfortably numbing “Pieces of the Sky,” while a captivating, almost vocalizing synth riff hooks us into the modern-toned love ballad “Easily Led.” These songs are masterfully crafted, from their alluring melodies and arrangements to chord and tempo shifts, full use of stereo separation, varying emphasis between instrumental components, clever use of effects and soundbytes, and more. All four musicians excel in their respective roles, displaying strong singing voices and vocal personalities, plus precise instrumental execution. Self-recorded, produced, mixed and engineered, this album sounds remarkable from start to end, with everything coming through crisp, balanced and full. While You Were Away offers a superb listen, and a rewarding escape for fans longing for that “headphone album” to immerse themselves for hours at a time. Excellent stuff! (The album can be obtained through the group’s website, ,

JAE SMITH – MURMUR (no label) Jae Smith has made his presence felt in the west-central PA music scene during the past two decades as a member and ringleader of several bands, and has evolved as a solo artist, singer and songwriter since 2013. Jae’s acoustic debut solo album, Murmur, introduces us into his musical world and persona. Jae displays an eclectic style that taps flavors spanning from folk and Americana to alternative rock roots, especially from the 1990s. Strumming acoustic guitar and demonstrating a gritty singing style, Jae shows a knack for solid song hooks and melodies, and observational words about the ups and downs of life and love. Memories and laments provide prominent themes over the album’s 14 tracks; reflections of a failed relationship haunt the lyrics of the album’s first song, “Ghosts,” while “Highland Haze” suggests to stop dwelling on past mistakes and that life goes on. The struggle and desperation from blue-collar life surface on the hard-driving “Time Clocks and Tombstones.” A domestic squabble prefaces “My Puppeteer,” as Jae weighs the bliss and stress of relationships, while moving forward from relationship woes provides the theme of “Weeks or Months.” Other numbers are more upbeat, such as Jae’s ode to a free-spirited gal in “Tragically Beautiful,” and his wordplay-savvy “Miss Communication” which could suggest a devious lady, devious news media or both. Jae also peppers four acoustic instrumentals through the course of the album: the wistful yet cosmic “Laying in a Hammock (A Space Odyssey),” “The Dawn of Aurora,” the tranquil “Secret River” and the gentle “”Eris’s Lullaby (Goodnight Autumn),” which ends the album. Jae flies without a net here, with his voice and guitar doing the talking; his performances are sincere and his lyrics intriguing and thoughtful. Self-recorded, Murmur sounds crisp and full, with Jae’s voice sounding clear and intelligible, and the mix is basic and to the point. Jae Smith’s Murmur provides a satisfying listen as it offers a snapshot of this artist’s musical mind and personality. (You can obtain the album through online music and streaming platforms.)