Vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth build on their 2014 Grammy win with ‘Render’

Roomful‘Render’
Roomful of Teeth (New Amsterdam)
4 stars out of 5

With the popularity of the “Pitch Perfect” movies, NBC’s “The Sing Off” and even Fox’s recently departed “Glee,” mainstream interest in — and appreciation of — a cappella has never been higher. Grammy-winning Massachusetts collective Roomful of Teeth look to capitalize on the genre’s popularity with intriguing sophomore platter “Render.”

Roomful CDThe sounds created by the nine-member ensemble are breathtaking at times as they specialize in modern compositions that incorporate classical, chamber, pop and world music into a tasty sonic stew. “Render” boasts impossibly intricate harmonies that should appeal to a cappella enthusiasts everywhere.

Three-part composition “The Ascendant” is the centerpiece of the nine-track, 56-minute release. Though it (surprisingly) features sparse percussion in addition to Room of Teeth’s signature vocals, it ranks among the group’s finest offerings. Additional keepers include haunting opener “Vesper Sparrow,” “Beneath” and the title track.

It’s hard to build on a debut album that landed them the 2014 Grammy for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance, but these talented vocalists have done just that. (Jeffrey Sisk)

Indie newcomers Mittenfields impress on ‘Optimists’ debut

Mittenfields‘Optimists’
Mittenfields (self-released)
4 stars out of 5

Spearheaded by a three-pronged guitar attack, Washington, D.C.-based indie outfit Mittenfields make a pleasantly loud first impression on full-length debut “Optimists.” The Dave Mann-fronted outfit earned some positive reviews with 2011 EP “The Fresh Sum,” but it’s taken them a while to follow up. I’m happy to report that this terrific eight-track, 39-minute slab is well worth the wait.

Mittenfields CDMann (vocals/bass), Brian Moran (drums) and guitarists Sam Sherwood, Michael Ball and Donald Seale mix in elements of shoegaze and noise pop to create a sound that’s all their own. The lengthy break between records has allowed Mittenfields to hone their sound and perfect their craft.

The best songs on “Optimists’ open and close the album. The razor sharp title track sets the tone in less than two blistering minutes, while sprawling nine-minute closer sends Mittenfields out on a raging high note. In between are keepers “We’ve Become Numbers,” “Doctor! Doctor! The Heart Isn’t Beating,” “Goldmine” and “Birth to Broken Hearts.”

“We wanted to do more than just prolong our adolescence playing rock music,” Sherwood says. Mission accomplished. (Jeffrey Sisk)

Arthur Nasson gets sons’ help on ‘The Emperor’s New Sound’ EP

Arthur Nasson‘The Emperor’s New Sound’
Arthur Nasson (Philistine)
3.5 stars out of 5

It’s a family affair for singer/songwriter Arthur Nasson on “The Emperor’s New Sound,” the Massachusetts native’s newest EP. His sons join the fray on the five-track collection of ear-pleasing power/pop and the results are quite enjoyable.

Arthur Nasson CDNasson handles the bulk of the heavy lifting (vocals, piano, guitar, bass, organ, percussion, synthesizers), but son Graham plays drums on all five cuts and Hammond B3 organ on closer “Graham’s Gentlemen’s Club.” And son Colin plays guitar, theremin and some spoken word work.

Things get off to a strong start with the title track, “Purple Swan” and personal favorite “Tiger By the Claws.” The short-player’s weak link, such as it is, is “Multiverse,” but Nasson & Sons bounce back nicely with the aforementioned “Graham’s Gentlemen’s Club.”

If you are hankering for even more from Arthur Nasson, check out experimental EP “That’s No Way to Treat a Piano,” in which he sets out to dispel any and all preconceived notions about what the instrument can do. (Jeffrey Sisk)

Paul de Jong serves up quirky gem of a solo debut in ‘If’

De Jong‘If’
Paul de Jong (Temporary Residence)
3.5 stars out of 5

As someone who never fully embraced the quirky electronic indie pop of New York duo The Books, I didn’t know what to expect from “If,” the solo debut from band co-founder Paul de Jong. I know that I’m in the minority among critics when it comes to The Books, but I never particularly enjoyed the music de Jong and pal Nick Zammuto made over the course of four albums.

TRR249LP_tp0001c_LPtipon_jacket_revMuch to my surprise, I find myself enjoying — if not out-and-out adoring — “If.” It’s an off-kilter gathering of 12 tunes much in the vein of his work with The Books but I find it far more palatable. De Jong soars on keepers like “Auction Block,” “Hollywald,” “Debt Free,” “Age of the Sea” and “Purpose,” which offset occasional misfires “This Is Who I Am” ad “The Art of What.”

Maybe I need to revisit the albums he made with Zammuto. Because if I find “If” to be a first-rate listen, maybe I’m now better equipped to appreciate what they were doing in The Books. (Jeffrey Sisk)

Sam Cohen lends his name to masterful ‘Cool It’ solo release

Sam Cohen‘Cool It’
Sam Cohen (Easy Sound)
4 stars out of 5

Sam Cohen feared his music career might be over in 2009 when his longtime band Apollo Sunshine (sadly) called it quits after eight years and three albums together. The talented singer/songwriter soon soared to new heights with solo project Yellowbirds, including the flat-out terrific 2013 release “Songs From the Vanished Frontier” that found him dabbling in indie folk, pop and rock.

Sam Cohen CDThe success of the Yellowbirds records landed Cohen a handful of producing gigs and paved the way for the next chapter in his musical life. That chapter comes to fruition with the stellar “Cool It,” Cohen’s first album under his own name.

“I worked on a ton of albums; playing, producing, engineering, collaborating in many different ways,” he explains. “I started to hear what I sound like, so I became Sam Cohen and made (‘Cool It’). It’s mostly just me alone in a room, playing guitar, drums, bass, synths, singing, recording in both haphazard and elaborate methods.”

It also happens to be some of the best work of his career. The one-two opening punch of “Let the Mountain Come to You” and “Pretty Lights” gets things off to a great start, and Cohen continues to impress on “Don’t Shoot the Messenger,” “Last Dream,” “A Farewell to Arms” and “El Dorado.” This guys gets more impressive every time out. (Jeffrey Sisk)

‘Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings’: Two masters at the top of their game

Bennett Evans‘The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings’
Tony Bennett & Bill Evans (Fantasy)
4.5 stars out of 5

Legendary vocalist Tony Bennett and acclaimed jazz pianist Bill Evans agreed to record together in 1975, and the results were magical. They ultimately released two records — 1975’s “The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album” and 1976’s “Together Again” — with the unique pairing bringing out the very best in both of them. The 40th anniversary of the collaboration is being marked with a sprawling four-LP box set, “The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings.”

Bennett Evans CDIn addition to the original two albums, a pair of bonus LPs are chock full of alternate takes and bonus tracks. The 180-gram vinyl collection also includes a collectible photograph of Bennett and Evans, a 12-page booklet of photos and liner notes from Bennett biographer Will Friedwald.

The set includes masterful renditions of classics from the Great American Songbook, including Young and Foolish,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” “The Touch of Your Lips,” “Waltz for Debby,” “The Two Lonely People,” “Maybe September” and “Make Someone Happy.” This set is a must for fans of either — or both — of these remarkable performers. (Jeffrey Sisk)

Spencer Sutherland to support SoMo at Pittsburgh’s Rex Theater on Saturday, May 2

(Photo by Rodolfo Martinez)

(Photo by Rodolfo Martinez)

Up-and-coming pop artist Spencer Sutherland takes to the stage at Pittsburgh’s Rex Theater on Saturday, May 2, at 8 p.m. in support of headliner SoMo. Also on the bill are Johnny Stimson and Walden Wesley. Tickets for the all-ages show are $22.50 in advance and $25 at the door. The Rex Theater is located at 1602 E. Carson St. on the city’s South Side. Call 412-381-6811 or visit http://www.rextheatre.com for additional information.

Brian Lisik delivers enjoyable ‘Curtisinterruptedus’ long-player

Brian Lisik‘Curtisinterruptedus’
Brian Lisik (Cherokee Queen)
3.5 stars out of 5

I first became aware of singer/songwriter Brian Lisik a few years ago with the release of third solo platter “The Mess That Money Could Buy.” It’s a first-rate gathering of guitar-driven power/pop and had me eager to hear more from the Akron native.

Brian Lisik CDLisik’s latest project is “Curtisinterruptedus,” a 14-track, 37-minute collection of tunes that is even more enjoyable than its predecessor. He says these tunes bring back memories of his youth in the heart of the Rust Belt.

“It isn’t so much in terms of sound or structure as in spirit, but these songs remind me a lot of the neighborhood I grew up in,” Lisik notes. “It’s kind of eerie, really. They aren’t so much anachronistic as very familiar. I can’t explain it, but I can feel it.”

The rollicking “Jan. 13” gets things off to a great start, and Lisik later impresses with “Beaten Up Blue,” “Marietta,” “Born on Needles and Pins,” “Chaos Is a Friend of Mine,” “St. Patrick’s Day (Alex)” and “Swagger Sway Fall.” Good stuff. (Jeffrey Sisk)

Tyler Farr moving up the country ladder with ‘Suffer in Peace’

Tyler Farr‘Suffer in Peace’
Tyler Farr (Columbia Nashville)
4 stars out of 5

Country newcomer Tyler Farr made his full-length debut in 2013 with the decidedly average “Redneck Crazy.” It was a perfectly serviceable collection of modern country tunes, but not a record that I’ve had much desire to revisit over the past couple years. So imagine my surprise when Farr positively knocked it out of the park on sophomore slab “Suffer in Peace.”

Tyler Farr CDThe Missouri native takes a huge leap forward with this terrific gathering of hard country, honky tonk anthems and heartbreak ballads. It might have taken him a little while to find his voice, but Farr now figures to be a real player on the country music scene.

“I don’t think real life is flowers and sunshine — and I didn’t have a white picket fence in front of a little house,” Farr explains. “My parents split up. My dad died. My mom was married five times, so I’m used to people leaving. I’ve been through a lot … but so have most people. And I want to be honest. I’d be lying if I made a record that’s all girls and love and perfect ’cause that’s not real.”

Lead single “A Guy Walks Into a Bar” is my favorite cut on the 11-track, 36-minute platter, but Farr also scores with rollicking opener “C.O.U.N.T.R.Y,” the heartbreaking “Withdrawals,” the title track, “Criminal,” “Better in Boots” and “I Don’t Even Want This Beer.” With “Suffer in Peace,” Tyler Farr appears to be on the cusp of stardom. (Jeffrey Sisk)

Veteran bluesman Charlie Parr sizzles on ‘Stumpjumper’ release

Charlie Parr‘Stumpjumper’
Charlie Parr (Red House)
4 stars out of 5

Bluesy songwriter/guitarist Charlie Parr has carved out a nice career for himself as a musician, with more than a dozen albums to his credit over the past 15 years. The Minnesota native spreads his wings a little more on latest release “Stumpjumper,” the first platter to feature Parr recording with a full band in the studio. It’s a terrific 11-track release that includes 10 originals and a stirring reading of traditional murder ballad “Delia.”

Charlie Parr CDParr has long said he draws his musical inspiration from his blue-collar hometown of Austin, Minn., whose claim to fame is being where most of the world’s Spam is manufactured.

“Every morning you’d hear the (factory) whistles blow, when I was a kid they had the stockyards and animals there, so you were surrounded by this atmosphere,” Parr recalls. “As a kid I thought it was kind of boring, but now I go and visit my mom and I think it’s the most beautiful landscape there is.”

The fleshed-out sound of having a full band in tow works wonders for Parr on “Stumpjumper.” From the opening notes of “Evil Companion” to the closing strains of “Delia,” he’s at the top of his game throughout. Additional keepers include “Empty Out Your Pockets,” “Remember Me If I Forget,” “On Marrying a Woman With an Uncontrollable Temper,” the title track and “Frank Miller Blues.” Highly recommended. (Jeffrey Sisk)