The Grape and The Grain sizzle on gritty self-titled debut album

Grape‘The Grape and The Grain’
The Grape and The Grain (self-released)
4 stars out of 5

Blues-tinged hard rock is alive and well thanks to the efforts of New York-based five-piece The Grape and The Grain, who make quite a splash with their blistering self-titled debut full-length. Initially a solo project for guitarist Daniel Grimsland, the band has blossomed into hard-driving quintet whose star very definitely is on the rise.

Grape CD“We all are writers and multi-instrumentalists,” Grimsland explains. “Having grown up together, we have a pretty good understanding of where each of us is trying to go musically, and all that makes for a very easy, open and inviting writing process.”

It’s an album that should appeal to fans of bands like Clutch and Queens of the Stone Age, as The Grape and The Grain stomp their way through 10 consistently strong tunes. While you won’t find a clunker in the bunch, Grimsland & Co. soar highest on “Burnt By the Sun,” “Twitch,” “Shoot You Down,” “Nobody Ever Broker Your Heart” and “Ghost.” Rock on, fellas. (Jeffrey Sisk)

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Listeners should ‘Say Yes’ to second EP from Lauren Strange

Lauren Strange‘Say Yes’
Lauren Strange (self-released)
4 stars out of 5

Lauren Strange has earned her stripes performing alongside the likes of Taylor Swift, Phil Vassar and Passion Pit, and won the 2010 John Lennon International Songwriting Contest with debut EP “The Strange.” Three-track EP “Say Yes” is just her second release, but Strange has continued to display growth as both a performer and a songwriter.

Lauren Strange CD“I write from personal experience,” she says. “I’ve been writing and creating since I was a little kid, and it comes very natural to me.”

The Memphis-born, Nashville-based Strange taps into her rock side on “Say Yes,” ably backed by first-rate band The Pretty Killers. The results are terrific. The rollicking title track is the best some of the bunch, but “Johnny” and “Runner” are almost as good. Happily, plans are in the works for a full-length album and we’ll have more of her music to enjoy in the near future. (Jeffrey Sisk)

Little Boots tide fans over with release of ‘Business Pleasure’ EP

LIttle Boots‘Business Pleasure’
Little Boots (self-released)
3 stars out of 5

Recording under the Little Boots moniker, electro-pop artist Victoria Hesketh exploded onto the club scene in 2008 with infectious single “Stuck on Repeat.” She’s continued to churn out synth-fueled dance music ever since, including last year’s excellent sophomore full-length “Nocturnes.”

Little Boots CDTo tide her fans overuntil the next album, Little Boots serves up the four-track EP “Business Pleasure.” Lead single “Taste It” is a winner, and one of my favorite Little Boots tracks to date, but the rest of the short-player feels like material left on the cutting-room floor during the “Nocturnes” sessions.

“Heroine” kind of meanders all over the place without ever getting to the point and closer “Pretty Tough” is not especially memorable. The title track has its moments and merits a few spins, but Little Boots have done better. And I have no doubt Hesketh will again. (Jeffrey Sisk)

Walk the Moon avoid sophomore slump with ‘Talking Is Hard’ LP

Walk The Moon‘Talking Is Hard’
Walk the Moon (RCA)
3.5 stars out of 5

I, like many of my fellow critics, was enamored with the self-titled debut album from Cincinnati-based foursome Walk the Moon. There was a nice retro dance-pop vibe to the 2012 release and the record spawned breakout single “Anna Sun” and a handful of other first-rate tunes.

Walk The Moon CDIt’s taken a little while, but the guys are back with sophomore slab “Talking Is Hard.” The 12-track platter mines much of the same indie pop turf as its predecessor but is a tad less effective. That’s not to say Walk the Moon have endured the dreaded sophomore slump, far from it, but these tunes don’t feel quite as fresh as those on their debut. Maybe part of it because the similarly-themed Neon Trees beat Walk the Moon to the punch with “Pop Psychology” back in April.

There are some notable exceptions, of course. Lead single “Shut Up and Dance” is fantastic, and every bit as good as the aforementioned “Anna Sun,” and Walk the Moon also score with “Different Colors,” “Avalanche,” “Work This Body” and “Come Under the Covers.” See you on the dance floor. (Jeffrey Sisk)

Trip Shakespeare’s early albums get deluxe reissue treatment

(Photo by Greg Allen)

(Photo by Greg Allen)

‘Applehead Man’ & ‘Are You Shakespearienced?’
Trip Shakespeare (Omnivore)
3 stars out of 5; 3.5 stars out of 5

Alternative rockers Trip Shakespeare flirted with national acclaim in the early 1990s but ultimately called it quits after just four albums. I recall their 1990 major-label debut “Across the Universe” and 1991’s “Lulu” swan song, but the folks of Omnivore are shedding some light on Trip Shakespeare’s early work with deluxe reissues of 1986’s “Applehead Man” and 1988’s “Are You Shakespearienced?”

The band started as a trio comprised Matt Wilson, Elaine Harris and John Munson, with Wilson’s brother Dan joining Trip Shakespeare for album No. 2. These reissues are enjoyable enough but reveal a band that was still finding its way. The songs — especially on “Applehead Man” — sound a little dated but there are glimpses of what made their final two releases so special.

Trip CD 1The “Applehead Man” reissue features the album’s original 10 cuts — highlighted by “Stop the Winter,” the title track, “Pearle” and “Beatle” — plus seven previously unreleased bonus tracks. Among the unreleased tunes, “Freedom Bird” and early versions of “The Nail” and “Susannah” are the ones you’ll remember.

Trip CD 2Sophomore album “Are You Shakesperienced?”, despite the unfortunate title, holds up a little better. Dan Wilson’s addition gave Trip Shakespeare the jolt they needed for an album highlighted by “The Lake,” “Two Wheller, Four Wheeler,” “Thief,” “Toolmaster of Brainerd” and “Reception.” There also are nine bonus tracks, including standouts “Earth, By Revolving,” “Car,” “Look at the Lady” and an early version of “Snow Days.” Good stuff. (Jeffrey Sisk)

Foreigner take to the stage for ‘The Best of Foreigner 4 & More’

Foreigner‘The Best of Foreigner 4 & More’
Foreigner (sony/CMG)
3.5 stars out of 5

Foreigner came out of the gate swinging in the late 1970s. The creative team of Mick Jones and Lou Gramm clicked from the outset and Foreigner’s first four albums — 1977’s self-titled debut, 1978’s “Double Vision,” 1979’s “Head Games” and 1981’s “4” — were nothing short of amazing and spawned a boatload of hit singles.

Foreigner CDThings cooled off noticeably from there for Foreigner (who can forget the excruciating 1985 power ballad “I Want to Know What Love Is”?) but various incarnations of the band — with Jones as the lone constant — have continued to tour and make records for almost 40 years. Latest project “The Best of Foreigner 4 & More” features live recordings of many of the best tunes on “4,” plus an assortment of other tracks.

“Our music has touched a lot of people worldwide and we’ve unwittingly weaved our music into the fabric of people’s lives,” Jones says.

The best stuff is the “4” material — “Woman in Black” “Urgent,” “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” “Girl on the Moon,” “Juke Box Hero” — but the lads also serve up solid renditions of “Feels Like the First Time,” “Cold as Ice,” “Hot Blooded” and, yes, even “I Want to Know What Love Is.” Foreigner’s fans should be pleased with this one. (Jeffrey Sisk)

The Singer & The Songwriter shine on full-length debut ‘What a Difference a Melody Makes’

Singer‘What a Difference a Melody Makes’
The Singer & The Songwriter (Mason Jar Music)
4 stars out of 5

It’s been a long and fascinating journey for The Singer & The Songwriter. The duo comprised of vocalist Rachel Garcia and multi-instrumentalist Thu Tran met in 2006 while students at San Francisco State University, but it wasn’t until 2009 that they released a debut EP.

Singer CDNow based in Los Angeles, The Singer & The Songwriter have fine-tuned their sound and their first full-length, “What a Difference a Melody Makes,” is a revelation. Tran’s pop- and folk-influenced songwriting blends seamlessly with Garcia’s jazzy vocals to create a sound all their own.

The duo earned some acclaim by winning the 2012 West Coast Songwriters International Song Contest. That tune, “The Art of Missing You,” is flat-out terrific and lifts the lid on “What a Difference a Melody Makes.” Things only get better from there as Garcia and Tran — who plays guitar, piano, harmonica, ukulele and banjo on the record — soar on keepers “Old Fashioned,” “Out of the Fog,” “Half the Week,” “A Borrowed Room in a Borrowed House,” “Pacific Coast Highway” and “Summer Song.”

There aren’t any clunkers on the 13-track release, making for an extremely enjoyable listen. Here’s hoping The Singer & The Songwriter don’t wait so long to make their next album. (Jeffrey Sisk)

The holidays wouldn’t be the same without another terrific Pittsburgh CLO production of ‘A Musical Christmas Carol’

Jeffrey Howell, Matei Zivanov and Tom Atkins star in Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera's production of "A Musical Christmas Carol."  The show continues weekends through Dec. 21 at Pittsburgh's Byham Theater. (Photo by Matt Polk)

Jeffrey Howell, Matei Zivanov and Tom Atkins star in Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera’s production of “A Musical Christmas Carol.” The show continues weekends through Dec. 21 at Pittsburgh’s Byham Theater. (Photo by Matt Polk)

By CAROL WATERLOO FRAZIER

    When December rolls around, musical theater fans know it’s time for a Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera tradition — “A Musical Christmas Carol.”

    This timeless Charles Dickens story of redemption takes theater-goers on a whirlwind tour of the past and future of the bah humbug himself, Ebenezer Scrooge. But the story takes place in the present (well, the present for Dickens when the story was first published in 1843.

    The show continues weekends through Dec. 21 at the Byham Theater in Pittsburgh.

    Since 1992, “Christmas Carol” has become a holiday tradition for folks of all ages. Whether you’ve seen it a few times or have never missed a year, the show never loses its appeal. Maybe it’s because main cast members have been involved since the beginning (with a missed season here and there). Or maybe the message of hope keeps people coming back. Or it could be because the CLO production remains amazingly fresh and new every year.

    The main characters are the same “friends” fans of the show have come to associate with their various rolls. Tom Atkins returns for his seventh year as Scrooge, the miserly accountant whose life revolves around numbers instead of people. Through a series of visits by three spirits and the ghost of his former partner, he begins to have regrets about things he’s done — and in some cases, not done.

    Atkins does a convincing job taking his character on the bumpy road to redemption. He delivers one-liners with just the right blend of wit and sarcasm and his rebirth results in a child-like giddiness on Christmas morning.

    The journey begins when Scrooge encounters the ghost of his dead partner, Jacob Marley. Daniel Krell creates an eerie walking-dead character that’s forced to wear the chains he forged in life, link by link, as he wonders the earth. He warns his partner of the pending visits by the spirits — the Ghost of Christmas Past (Amanda Serra), the Ghost of Christmas Present (Tim Hartman) and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (Patrick Cannon). As the young Marley, Krell depicts him as an all-business, cold-hearted person who is more concerned with the bottom line than people.

    Most performers have multiple roles, including Hartman who steals the show as the happy-go-lucky Mr. Fezziwig. He gives the show its comic relief while Fezziwig and his wife, played to the hilt by Terry Wickline (she shines in this role but is even more comical as Scrooge’s housekeeper Mrs. Dilber). Their on-screen chemistry is wonderful. They both show a glimpse of their more dramatic side when they are forced out of their home because of foreclosure — by Marley and Scrooge.

    Cannon’s main role is that of Younge Scrooge. Making his “Christmas Carol” debut, he does a good job transitioning from the young and in love (Erika Strasburg does a nice job as his fiancée Belle) apprentice to the ruthless, cold-hearted accountant. His character runs a gamut of emotions and he does a good job in bringing the audience with him on the journey.

    Jeffrey Howell reprises his role of Bob Cratchit, who works for Scrooge and copes with his miserly ways in a gracious almost pleasant way. He’s convincing when telling his family never to forget Tiny Tim in an emotional plea. It’s a scene guaranteed to result in you shedding a tear or two.

    Tiny Tim, the youngest of the Cratchit children who is crippled and must walk with a cane, is played by first-grader Matei Zivanov. Seemingly unaffected by the audience, he turns in a nice performance and does a good job when singing grace (“Away in A Manger”) before the family delves into “the veritable feast.”

    Others turning in notable performances are Justin Fortunato as Scrooge’s nephew Fred, who won’t give up trying to pour out a little Christmas cheer on his crotchety uncle, and Lisa Ann Goldsmith as Mrs. Cratchit, who shines in an emotional scene after Tim’s death (as foreseen through one of the spirits).

    If you have some free time during the next two weekends, CLO’s “A Musical Christmas Carol” is well worth the trip into Pittsburgh. Not only will you enjoy a wonderful show but you’ll be making memories that will last a lifetime.

   For more information or for tickets, call 412-456-6666.

Jacob & The Good People take nice step forward on ‘Rotten’ EP

Jacob‘Rotten’
Jacob & The Good People (self-released)
3.5 stars out of 5

Atlanta-based outfit Jacob & The Good People take a nice step forward on sophomore EP “Rotten.” It’s the first album for the Jacob Blazer-fronted band since he relocated to the Peach State and finds him mixing elements of hip-hop, electronica and indie pop into a tasty sonic stew.

Jacob CD“This disc has a faux urban/electronic vibe that the previous EP didn’t have,” Blazer says of the five-track release. “It’s a little goofy and intentional. If anyone has seen us, they understand our fascination with hip-hop and our everlasting desire to mimic it just a bit.”

There’s also a hint of Sublime woven throughout “Rotten,” with Jacob & The Good People soaring especially high on keepers “Koo Koo,” personal favorite “Alcoholic,” “I Love Women” (featuring Crane) and “Clink.” Can’t wait to hear more from Blazer & Co. (Jeffrey Sisk)

Rich Robinson delivers terrific new live LP in ‘Woodstock Sessions, Vol. 3’

Rich Robinson‘Woodstock Sessions, Vol. 3’
Rich Robinson (Circle Sound)
4 stars out of 5

Rich Robinson has never gotten the credit he deserves as one of the driving creative forces (along with older brother Chris) behind The Black Crowes. But over the past few years the younger Robinson, already an acclaimed guitar player, has proven himself to be a terrific songwriter and vocalist in his own right.

Rich Robinson CDEarlier this year, Robinson impressed with third full-length “The Ceaseless Sight” and he’s right back at it with dynamite live offering “Woodstock Sessions, Vol. 3.” Recorded over the summer before an intimate studio audience. Robinson delivers up a nice mix of originals and covers of The Velvet Underground (“Oh! Sweet Nuthin’”), Freddie McCoy (“One Cylinder”) and Krautrock outfit Agitation Free (“Laila II”).

Additional standouts include “The Giving Key,” “By the Light of the Sunset Moon,” “Bye Bye Baby,” “I Know You” and “Lost and Found.” Who knows if The Black Crowes will every reunited/end their hiatus, but Rich Robinson will be just fine no matter what happens. (Jeffrey Sisk)