‘The Lane Change’
12 songs, 48 minutes
Red Calman Records (2014)
The Jakob’s Ferry Stragglers took a middle ground with “The Lane Change.”
There’s equal time spent between jamming and singing, vocal parts for both male and female, and members who share seemingly equal time soloing.
This one makes for breezy, pleasant listening — prime for the summertime festival atmosphere. And they seem to save the best for last, as album’s highlight is it’s finale, “Scattered Pieces.”
The Pittsburgh-based band has played the Flood City Music Festival in the past, and is among several groups already slated to play Windber’s Bluegrass in the Park event this September.
If you plan to attend, it’d be a good idea to get familiar with “The Lane Change.”
‘Metamodern Sounds in Country Music’
10 songs, 34 minutes
High Top Mountain Records (2014)
Just when you thought contemporary country music had solidified itself as the musical equivalent of a fraternity rager, Sturgill Simpson crashed the party.
“Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” replaces drunken girl-chasing with philosophical musings on Buddha, Jungian psychology and the very fabric of reality. Safe to say it’s on the opposite side of “Red Solo Cup” on the lyrical spectrum.
This radical and refreshing take on the genre’s subject matter still contains all the classic country stylings, embellished just slightly with psych-rock components. Highlights include the trippy “Turtles All the Way Down,” the boogie-down “Life of Sin” and one touching rendition of When In Rome’s “The Promise.”
By far this was the best country album I’d heard from last year.
Further, it may have been the best album period from last year. More than just a great singer, Sturgill Simpson is an authentic storyteller.
Dude is the real deal.
‘Strength Through Silence’
This one was written by one of Pittsburgh’s most active original metal bands.
Unparalleled Height’s “Strength Through Silence” is from “Rise of the Voiceless,” an album that’s actually been out since 2013.
There are obvious parallels to milennial metal groups such as Avenged Sevenfold and Bullet For My Valentine — up-tempo drumming, singing leads and clean vocals that cut through the distortion.
It’s one thing to be talented, but you also have to write some hooks. And Unparalleled Height does just that with “Strength Through Silence.” The dual melodies in this one will be stuck in your head for a while after listening.
The group is opening for 10 Years at Mr. Smalls on March 14. If this is your style of music, make plans to get out to this show.
8 tracks, 29 minutes
Wake Up Records (2015)
This week’s original music submission came from Sunshine, a group hailing out of Brooklyn, New York.
I’ve only been to the Big Apple twice myself, and I can’t say I did much cultural immersion. Right or wrong, I still think of Sinatra, smooth brass and old-timey lounge tunes beneath big city lights.
Sunshine captures some of this with “Sunshine Nights,” the sophomore release from Steven Ferrara, Amy Santos and the rest of the seven-piece band.
Santos shines vocally on “I Got Myself A Workin’ Man,” an old Alberta Hunter song with some fantastic horn lines. Ferrara, meanwhile, steals the show at times with his idiosyncratic playing of the lap steel.
Ferrara and Santos originally sent their music to Amped via post office, but the CD had significant heat damage in transit and was unusable. So I listened to the songs at sunshinenights.bandcamp.com, where the first 1,000 people to download the music can do so free of charge.
If Americana that’s equal parts New York and New Orleans sounds appealing, you’ll want to check out the sound of Sunshine.
Another Evening and Other Tales
10 songs, 37 minutes; Self-released (2014)
When the members of Shelf Life String Band decided on the group’s name, they clearly took the “string band” part pretty seriously.
Tight arrangements of fiddle, banjo and mandolin compose the substance of the band’s debut LP, “Another Evening and Other Tales.” According to their website, these Pittsburghers entertained at the inauguration party of Mayor Bill Peduto.
To me, the two most remarkable tracks on their album are “Single Barrel” and “Fiddled” — “Single Barrel” because it was dynamic and catchy, and “Fiddled” because it sounds almost exactly like one of the solos in Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
Close to deadline, I discovered that Shelf Life String Band released their album in tandem with Rock Bottom Brewery’s Shelf Life India Pale Lager. Would have been pretty cool try that stuff while I first gave their music a listen.
Maybe I’ll get lucky and they’ll send me a sample to drink when I listen to their not-yet-realized second album.
5 songs, 15 minutes; Self-released (2014)
Murder for Girls crank the volume, angst and estrogen up to ‘11.’
This four-piece group of Pittsburgh rockers do garage rock right with their self-titled release — five songs in a blistering 15 minutes that leaves no time for second guessing. Equal parts hypnotic and vitriolic, this offering is at the crux of vocal harmonization and clashing grunge-chord dissonance.
The ladies (plus bassist Jonathan Bagamery) demonstrate a knack for strong, dynamic songwriting. And the raw, under-produced approach to recording is perfect for this style of music.
Society’s most dominant female themes and stereotypes seem to center around either the mild homemaker or stiff corporate climber.
It’s good to hear from some ladies who know how to let their hair down and rock ‘n’ roll.
Adjustments Pt. 2
10 tracks, 41 minutes
The music I’m most accustomed to involves stringed instruments and raw vocals. For that reason, synthpop is pretty far out of my comfort zone.
It would have been easy to dismiss Color Theory — brainchild of Huntingdon Beach, California, resident Brian Hazard — as disposable contemporary. But there were plenty of pleasant surprises.
The opening track, “Headphones,” is the best example. The obligatory hook is nice, but the tongue-in-cheek Weird Al-esque verse lines really sold it, as Hazard complains about people who don’t respect the privacy of those who jam out with their earbuds in: “The neon cord dangling from my neck/But somehow this less than subtle clue/Appears to have no effect on you.”
“Adjustments Pt. 2” is a sonically refreshing release that manages to wedge in a cover of the Barry Manilow single, “Could It Be Magic.” On the back end of the album are some EDM-rendered remixes that would be right at home in a darkened, glimmering mass of glow-stick wielding teens and 20-somethings.
Electronica music isn’t for everyone. But when it’s well-done, anyone with an open mind should still find something to appreciate.
13 songs, 49 minutes
It’s not every day that you hear a power trio from Perth, Australia, in western Pennsylvania.
Not unless you happen to be a fan of Ragdoll. And if you’re into up-tempo rock ‘n’ roll, you might want to educate yourself on these guys.
It’s pretty clear that this group is heavily inspired by all things guitar-driven, from the classic to contemporary. On “Ragdoll Rewound,” the songs conjure a variety of artists ranging from Nonpoint to Thin Lizzy. There’s even a pure power ballad: “Could It Be Love.”
There’s a lot to like about the groove these guys hit, especially on the smoothly assembled “Heaven Above” and feel-good anthem “Overnight Sensation.” But maybe the best part of this band is the impressive vocal range of bassist Ryan Rafferty, who reaches those higher-altitude notes like a boss.
The band can be heard – and seen, via music videos – at www.ragdollrock.com.
‘Rise of the Bastard’
15 songs, 48 minutes; Self-released (2014)
While we await what brilliant musical nuggets 2015 will bring us, it’s a good time to look back at the best of 2014.
And in western Pennsylvania, you won’t find much better than what was brewed up by the Bastard Bearded Irishmen.
“Rise of the Bastard” was a rousing release indeed, the songs snapping along with punk-rock fervor. The Bastard Bearded Irishmen bring infectious energy and optimism into a musical melting pot of ethnic stylings — from the polka two-beat drumming to the Americana-tinged mandolin to the beer-soaked Irish balladry.
Aside from the surprisingly touching “Last Drink,” all songs on this uproarious release are fast-paced and fun. And the groups’ rendition of “All For Me Grog” would make the Clancy Brothers proud.
This bunch of hairy, illegitimately conceived micks have managed to bottle up all the hope and promise of winter’s end that comes with St. Patrick’s Day revelry. May the road rise up to meet them and may the wind be ever at their back.
‘Underneath the Earth’
Seven songs, 22 minutes;
Silver Seed Records (2014)
You could drop an Essential Machine song into a 1994 college alt-rock playlist and it would fit in so well that nobody would even stop their hacky sack game.
Though probably true — especially of the album’s title track, which is reminiscent of The Cranberries — this band is does more than revisit the down-home, mellow stylings of old-school indie rock. These folks are serious songwriters, and they shine on “Underneath the Earth.”
This Greensburg-based band’s songwriting style includes an acoustic backing to interwoven layers of male-female vocal harmonies and xylophone leads. The husband-and-wife vocal team of Karen and R.J. Dietrich do a nice job of complementing each other. Overall, my favorite track was “Ezra Pound.”
Essential Machine is essential listening for those seeking new and original alternative music. Check them out at essentialmachine.com.
4:51 No label (2013)
It’d be easy to drop the tired “alt-rock” label on Painted By Millions.
But because the tight composition and infectious harmonies of the single “How Far” shows so much promise, any label would be unfair to the band at this point.
The single, released last year, utilizes pop drumming, clean guitar tone and emotionally charged vocals. There’s even a nice little solo thrown in.
Those who haven’t heard Painted By Millions yet should do so. This group is creating a high caliber of original music — big-city savvy from a group of young Johnstowners.