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ZUPE AND THE POLKA COMMANDOS – NA ZDROWIE! (NOSTROVIA!) (Menthol Bees Records) In this tumultuous and troublesome year that is 2020, perhaps what the world really needs right now is a cheery polka album. Enter longtime western PA-based entertainer Zupe and his Polka Commandos with their new, happy-go-lucky polka album, called Na zdrowie! (Nostrovia!) (“Cheers!” or “Bless You!” in Polish and several eastern European tongues). Uplifting polka-flavored merriment fills this album’s 15 tracks as Zupe celebrates the music, his family and Eastern European heritage, Pennsylvania traditions and more. Zupe sings, plays keys, trumpet, accordion and percussion, and wrote/co-wrote the music on this album with collaborator Mike Popovich, assisted by his ‘Commandos,’ which include popular modern-day polka artist Alex Meixner on accordion and trumpet, drummer Tommy Halla, bassist Christian Fabian, singer and multi-instrumentalist Mollie B, sax player Joe Tierney, guitarist Jimmy Meyer and others. Inspired by family picnics and Zupe’s grandfather, the title track “Na Zdrowie! Polka (Nostrovia)” eagerly gets the album off to its robust start, recalling Polish picnics, food, drink and fun. Giving a nod to one of Johnstown’s popular summer events is “Polkafest Polka,” one of several numbers with a local flavor. Another is the rust belt-inspired “Are You Workin’? Polka with its triple-accordion army of Alex, Zupe and Dan Crosser (of Dan & Galla fame). Two waltzes are part of the fun – the tongue-in-cheek, Klezmer-toned “Pitiful Pierogi,” about a Polish husband’s bewilderment over his Italian wife’s cooking; and the forgiveness-seeking ode “My Heart.” “Polka Vibe” celebrates Polish pride as it rails against Polish jokes and other ridicule. Another food-inspired number, “Halupki Polka,” weaves a tale of a cook wary of her disappearing pigs-in-a-blanket. Two polkas are holiday-themed, as Zupe and his Commandos give a famous whistlepig his own polka with “Punxsutawney Phil Polka,” and they consider the point of view of the reindeer who lost his leading gig to red-nosed Rudolph on “Dasher, the Reindeer.” Zupe and his cohorts celebrate the passing of the polka torch between generations on “Polka Revolution.” The album contains one cover song, an update of Mitch Biskup’s “Strawberries, Raspberries Polka.” As any polka album worth its weight should be, this album is continually upbeat from start to end, and Zupe and his cast radiate happiness and enthusiasm throughout this set. The performances are robust, and listeners will be hard-pressed not to tap their feet along to these songs. Produced by Zupe and recorded using seven different studios in five states, this album sounds clean, bright and full. Na zdrovia! (Nostrovia!) is a feisty polka party that will jump from your favorite listening device, bring smiles and laughter from your soul, and could well have you dancing throughout your living space. Zupe and the Polka Commandos deliver a spirited, charged polka joyride! (The album can be obtained through Zupe’s website, (www.zupe.net, as well as online digital platforms.)
SILVERTUNG – (BUT, AT WHAT COST??!) (Thermal Entertainment) Through the course of their first four recordings, constant touring and a feverish work ethic, Baltimore’s Silvertung has grown a large fan base and achieved some national notoriety. Their latest recording, (But, At What Cost??!) should help that rise to continue. Frontman and guitarist Speed, lead guitarist Codey, bassist Sam and drummer Danno (since replaced by new drummer Boma) have crafted seven sharp-edged and concise slabs of hard-hitting rock that ride the line between classic rock/metal-geared melody and nu-metal intensity. The rhythms are thunderous and tight, the guitar riffs are prominent and engaging, and Speed sings with purpose and authority. The opening salvo “Dodging Bullets” explodes out of a creeping intro to set the album’s ground rules, with terse verses leading into angry choruses as Speed battles a turmoil of emotions from outside and within. “Feel Inhuman” sternly rumbles with its words of defending one’s humanity against the pressures of a dehumanizing world. In a similar vein, the melody-geared single “World Gone Mad” encourages listeners to stay the course and be the best humans they can be, especially during the current times. The boisterous “Wise Up” cautions listeners to think before they act, while “You’re Fine” deals with overcoming adversity and hard times. “Black Sunset” displays more of a nu-metal flavor, while the rampaging “Done My Best” sends the album home with the theme of standing tall and surviving the storm. Silvertung’s presentation is sharp and focused, and they bring the crunch, thunder and swagger throughout this set. Speed sings with a tough rawness, yet his words come through clearly. Produced by Steven Wright (whose credits include Slipknot and Mars Volta), this disc sounds tough and abrasive, yet layered and full. (But, At What Cost??!) shows Silvertung firing on all cylinders and executing like a well-oiled rock/metal machine, and displays a confident band with plenty of forward momentum. (This CD can be obtained through online retailers and Silvertung’s website, www.silvertung.com.)
KING CATFISH – AMERICANCER (no label) First formed as a 1990s rock cover band in 2016, Pittsburgh power trio King Catfish introduces their agitated, 1990s-influenced alternative rock flavor on their debut album, Americancer. Singer and guitarist Jordan Barone, bassist and singer Paul Rice, and drummer Sam Berger churn out agitated grunge and punk-fueled rock over the album’s 11 tracks. Nirvana surfaces as a prominent influence here, from the group’s angular melodies and lean, tight arrangements to Jordan’s vocal blend of Kurt Cobain-like detachment, angst and anger. King Catfish’s words are frequently introspective and cynical; the two-speed album-opener “Weird One” finds Jordan baring his soul; doubts, emotional scars and all. The album’s title song, “Americancer,” takes inventory of the country’s psyche as it questions materialism, selfishness, and the paranoia and insecurity they have led to. Riding an incendiary, fast-burning arrangement, the album’s first single, “Neptune Street,” explores how a virus has challenged and pushed human anxieties and emotions to the edge, with Jordan riding his angst to its psychotic limit. King Catfish explores some different musical terrain as well, dabbling in a slight surf vibe with “Right Now,” generating a Weezer-like pop-rock flavor with “Waiting,” and crafting a funkier, Red Hot Chili Peppers-like groove on “Push.” The group includes one cover, taking on Shocking Blue’s “Love Buzz” (a song Nirvana also covered during their early years); and their non-vocal skills take the spotlight on the short instrumental piece “Song of Storms.” King Catfish makes all of it count; their instrumental execution is feisty and inspired, and Jordan packs plenty of passion and personality into his vocal delivery. Recorded, mixed and mastered by John Stoecker, Americancer sounds clear, balanced and full, with King Catfish’s rawness and edginess sounding sharp and abrasive. This is a strong debut; King Catfish delivers a cohesive, cutting edge set on Americancer, and establishes their aggressive, alternative-rocking turf. (The album can be obtained by CD or download from King Catfish’s Bandcamp page.)
ON THE BRINK – VISUAL EMPATHY (no label) Altoona-based rock band On The Brink broadens their musical expanse and continues their story-themed brand of original music on their second album, Visual Empathy. Chief songwriter, lead singer and guitarist Edward Brinkel, bassist and co-writer Dana Brinkel, singer and violinist Lisa Wolf, viola player Kirsten Leigh and drummer Nathanael Woods weave together six songs of loss, emotional suffering and hope. The songs follow a loose theme of parting ways, the resulting loneliness and the emotions encountered, as On The Brink blends a variety of musical angles. With guest David Villani playing keys, the album gently opens with the first of several Edward and Lisa duets, “Devotion,” and a message that tomorrow is never guaranteed, and today’s world might never be again. The harder-edged “Longest Day” expresses longing and loneliness, while the title track “Visual Empathy” attempts reasoning and understanding. Written by Edward’s late brother, Kenneth Brinkel (to whose memory the album is devoted), “Send a Picture” embraces past memories while yearning for the return of lost moments. The rowdier “Closer to It” battles impatience for a return to normalcy, while the duet album-closer “Queen of Hearts’ likens life to a card game, where the luck of the draw can mean happiness or heartbreak. On The Brink’s variety of song textures and arrangements keeps this album sounding fresh from start to end, as they span gentler-toned, folk-driven passages to harder rock. The performances are solid; Edward and Lisa complement each other on vocals, and blend for some nice harmonies throughout the album, and Lisa’s and Kirsten’s strings add emotional color and depth to the group’s presentation. Recorded and engineered by David Villani at Altoona’s Data Music Services, Visual Empathy sounds clear, balanced, steady and consistent through its entirety. On The Brink continues to forge their own unique style and sound on Visual Empathy, while offering personal and thoughtful themes with which listeners can identify and relate. (The album can be obtained through Amazon, Apple Music and other online platforms.)
BRADEN McDANNELL – EAST & WEST (no label) Originally from western PA but now calling Lewisburg his home base, Braden McDannell has taken his guitar, harmonica and music across the country, and lived on the West Coast for a few years after his college time at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP). His experiences from that journey help inform the words on his album East & West. The album’s nine songs are rooted in the classic and modern folk-rock and Americana traditions, with Neil Young and Bob Dylan serving as influences. Braden sings about lessons learned, relationships, life experiences, and even offers observations about current times, while strumming his acoustic guitar and providing harmonica accents along the way. His social commentary kicks off the album on the song “To Live Again,” as he observes how humanity seems to have gone astray, and encourages society to learn to live again to right the ship. The darker “The Licks I’ve Taken” reflects on life’s hard lessons, while “Honest Lies” addresses someone who is headed on a downward path. Braden addresses relationships on the album, exploring a misunderstanding on “Medicate” and pondering a stalemate of differing personalities on the disc-closing “Night & Day.” Fueled by a catchy whistling riff, Braden decides to step forward with his dreams on “Scene in the Sky,” and that theme of moving forward also drives the uplifting “Light.” Braden sings with personality and clarity, and his guitar and harmonica work are solid. The songs are catchy, and the arrangements simple and direct. Self-recorded, and mixed and mastered at 1 Room Productions in Yakima, Washington; the album sounds clean and balanced, with Braden’s words and instrumentation coming through clearly. East & West is a thoughtful album that introduces listeners to Braden McDannell’s mind and musical world, and presents a satisfying, fulfilling listen. (The album can be obtained through Braden’s Bandcamp page and online music platforms.)
ANTONIO ANDRADE – SOMETHING HAPPENED (no label) Something happened…when, as a 10-year-old living in Centralia, Antonio Andrade saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. It changed his trajectory, from wanting to be a baseball player to becoming a musician. The title of Antonio’s fifth full-length release, Something Happened shows that his passion for creating and performing songs is still strong after four decades of making music. Singing, playing acoustic guitar and harmonica, Antonio mixes six of his upbeat folk-rocking original songs with five updates of classics and “not-so-classics” – helped along the way by Derek Euston on guitars and bass, Freebo on five-string fretless bass, Ed Lesser on drums and percussion, Mark Stuart on electric guitar, and harmony and backing singer Amma Johnson. Leading off the album, the title track “Something Happened” relates Antonio’s story of that fateful day in 1964, as he references his baseball hero Harmon Killebrew, and the seismic impact of that day, “…bigger than Curly and Larry and Moe/bigger than the image of Marilyn Monroe/bigger than Joe DiMaggio/the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show.” He sings of life in hard coal country on “Bended Elbow, Bended Knee,” weighing the options for tranquility and salvation between a church and a bar. A woman resembling Larry Fine (of the 3 Stooges) touches his heart on the playful “She’s My Love,” a special equine triggers pleasant memories on “Unforgettable,” and Antonio shares anger management tips on the lighthearted “When I’m Angry.” He also presents spirited interpretations of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River,” Randy Newman’s “Mama Told Me (Not to Come),” Warren Zevon’s “Hasten Down the Wind,” David Crosby’s “Carry Me,” and “Makes Me Happy,” a song by Stacey Earle (sister of Steve Earle). This is a warm album; Antonio’s expressive voice conveys his happy personality and enthusiasm for performing, and his helping cast of musicians nicely fleshes out the songs. Produced by Antonio and recorded at The Green Room in Harrisburg, this album sounds clean, balanced and full, with Antonio’s voice and personality solidly at the front and center. Hearing this album should make listeners glad that Something Happened to Antonio Andrade’s life in 1964; this set offers a pleasant and personable listening experience as Antonio shares his life and inspirations. (The CD can be obtained through Antonio’s website, www.lifeshakes.com.)
THE HOOK – MOONSHINE & HONEY (no label) Formed in 2014, Lehigh Valley-based foursome The Hook offers a freewheeling, multi-flavored brand of upbeat alternative rock on their debut CD, Moonshine & Honey. Over the course of the album’s 15 tracks, singer and guitarist Carlos Barata, drummer and singer Chris Kondravy, bassist Youssef Moussa and keyboardist Joe DiMarco blend elements of rock, funk, reggae, soul, blues, retro and roots music into a fresh, vibrant, musical stew that defies categorization. Their melodies are often catchy, their grooves punchy and ever-moving, and The Hook’s overall vibe is uplifting and bright. The opening track “Precipitate” sets the album’s tone with its churning, busy arrangement and rhythms, and its eager words about embracing life and not staying still. The funky and lively “Live It Up” champions being happy in your own skin and living for the moment. The title song, “Moonshine & Honey,” slowly builds to a full-blown zenith while offering philosophy about the rollercoaster ride called life. Other highlights include the funky, high-getting bliss of “Blunt,” the indie-rocking, independent spirit of “Get My Own” and “Be Like Johnny,” the jumpy and B-52s-like “Go Getter,” the chill-out reggae of “Good Feels,” the hard and blues-rocking “Take Control,” the 1960s-infused pop-rock of “Brand New,” and the more ambient and sullen album-closer “Far at All.” The Hook sounds strong through all of the tracks; Carlos delivers a smooth and consistent voice up front, often supported with layered harmonies. These guys can play their instruments, and keep the songs interesting with busy interaction, fills and layers. Produced by Duckhead Records in Bethlehem, this album sounds broad and deep, with all components of The Hook’s musical recipe coming through clearly and blending smoothly into a captivating veneer. The Hook provides a fresh, invigorating sound that should hook in listeners and new fans on Moonshine & Honey, as the group’s multiple angles and layers unify into a satisfying, complete listening experience. (The CD can be obtained through Amazon, iTunes and other online retailers.)