Cream of the Crop • The Top Regional CD Releases of 2016

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    icon Jan 11, 2017
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It is not new information to the region’s aficionados that interest in locally produced original music has exploded over the last several years.  While venues like Bemo’s, White’s Bar and Tri-City Brewing Company’s Tap Room have been featuring many of these artists’ live performances for some time, it can be claimed that 2016 is the year that regionally recorded output took center stage.

Any discussion of recorded music produced in the Great Lakes Bay region has to start with Andy Reed.  On any given day, the owner of Bay City-based Reed Recording Company might be wearing the hat of recording engineer, producer, instrumentalist and recording artist.

The year for Reed started well when the Spanish label This Is The Cosmos issued a Europe only “greatest hits” compilation.  The album is a sampling of the work that Reed has released under his own name or under the “studio band” name An American Underdog over the last ten years.

The game was upped a bit when Reed combined with Detroit area power pop veterans Chris Richards and Keith Klingensmith to release Conrad, their second album under the Legal Matters moniker.  This time, however, the band had been signed to Omnivore Records and Conrad received a national release.  Critics and fans of the genre have embraced the album, as its well-crafted songs and lush vocal harmonies rank it as one of the most polished efforts released anywhere in 2016.

As the year closed, Reed added another venture to his musical resume, as he is scoring the PBS documentary Re’flect.  Add in the work he did on nearly 30 EPs or LPs, many represented below, Reed’s 2016 musical year was probably one of the finest we have seen around here in a while, even if he isn’t completely “local” anymore.

It is a remarkable feat in itself that the visionary regional band known as The Process has lasted for 25-years with its essential line-up intact; but with their newest release entitled Who Is That Mad Band? the group has achieved a miraculous career pinnacle and managed to create a musical masterpiece that if there is any justice in this world, should easily catapult them into the Major League.

This amazing tapestry of 13-tracks should be a MUST HAVE for anybody serious about modern music and is easily one of the most innovative and accessible recordings released all year. Seven years in the making and spanning six studios worldwide, each of the tracks shimmers with strong melodic musical hooks and shines with impeccable production values that propel the tightly constructed musical performances into stellar levels of perfection.

Consisting of David Asher on vocals, guitars, bass, keyboards, drums & percussion; Garrick Owen on guitars; Bill Heffelfinger on guitars, bass, keyboards, drums & programming; Gabe Gonzalez on drums & backing vocals; and Seth Payton on bass, keyboards, guitars, percussion, backing vocals & horn arrangements, additional musicians include backing vocalists Mikki Sound, Michelle Shaw, Faith Gateway, Maria Rose; percussionists Earl ‘the Squirrel’ and Derrick Davis; and horns courtesy of John Rickert, Matt Wickie & Dennis Lewandowski.  Additional guitarists include David Ivory, Pete Metropoulos; with additional programming provided by Skip McDonald.

But the exceptionally gratifying surprise on this release is with the guest appearance of legendary guitarist Dick Wagner, who turns in one of his final performances before his untimely passing on the remarkable track, Dr Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.  To hear Wagner’s guitar soar above the hypnotically entrancing hook-lines into the stratosphere with his signature inventiveness is worth the price of admission alone.

Veteran singer / songwriter / sideman Michael Robertson issued his first solo album, All My Stories.  The eight tracks are right in the wheelhouse of the modern Americana movement.  Robertson also gained some national attention for this release, with reviews that name checked John Hiatt and Jason Isbell as comparisons.  Combining a deft lyrical touch and great backing tracks, All My Stories is a very satisfying listen for anyone for who appreciates song craft.

Big Brother Smokes last EP won multiple Review Music Awards when it was released in 2014.  Their first full length release, Tabula Rasa, is a real threat to do the same.  The album is a throwback in many ways and will find great favor with fans of bands such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Incubus.  Tight, funky rock tracks are coupled with very slick and syncopated vocal melodies.  The musicianship is outstanding – even jaw dropping in spots.  Tunes such as Bare Minimum are even great dance floor fare.  A super effort all the way around.

Andrew Kitzman’s release Try, Try Try gives our area its own purveyor of the singer / story teller genre mined by acts like John Mayer and Jack Johnson.  If it would have been released on a major label instead of by an independent artist, “So Cool” is the kind of song that would have rocked the summer vacation of high school and college girls everywhere.   Try, Try, Try is a strong set of songs organized around the concept of a young guy just figuring it out.  One listen would seem to indicated Kitzman has done just that.

Veteran acoustic roots music act Cornpone released Would It Matter At All in December.  Fans of the band have known for some time that these guys are legit when it comes to their musicianship.  To drive that point home, the band borrowed a page from the “Old Testament” of the Recording Bible.  While most of the artists on this list indicated their latest release represented their most polished work and that they labored over the recordings for months (or even years), Cornpone produced this album in one day.  Eight tracks, live, the old-fashioned way.  The fun and the energy comes through in the performances, it sounds like these could be four musicians jamming on the back porch.  This CD definitely qualifies as a good time.

Sophomore Slump, the second effort by Sins In Stereo, is anything but.  The CD reflects growth by the band as they drive through twelve original compositions.  Tunes like Adrenalina, Wolves and The Drinkin Song are great indie rock songs.  The writing is good, the playing excellent and the production quality very high.  Sophomore Slump has proven to be a great match for the modern automotive sound system.  Any trip with Sins in Stereo in your CD player ends up being well worth the drive.

Never Judge A Book is the debut release by guitarist Rick Gellise.  Known primarily for his work with retro rockers The Last, on this CD Gellise branches out into the realm of jazz.  Solid originals, such as the title track, sit neatly alongside standards “Misty” and “Sunny.”  Backed by an all-star roster of studio musicians, one of the main questions Gellise is getting from listeners of his maiden EP is “will there be a second chapter to this book?”

Jeff Yantz and the Barnhands returned to the studio in 2016, producing the typically strong EP Face For Radio.  Yantz and his band are known for their “wry and spry” variation on acoustic Americana.  Jeff Schrems and James Nelson of Cornpone make their second appearance on this list, backing Yantz on upright bass and accordion respectively.  (Yantz also takes an honorable mention spot for the 20th Anniversary Re-Release of Midland Street … Above Mary’s by his 1990’s combo The One Trick Ponies.  Originally recorded to a four-track recorder, Yantz had the disc remastered at Reed Recording Company.  For those that remember the halcyon days of “jingle jangle rock” and the early independent bands, this collection is a blast.)

Released on Christmas Eve, the White Oranges fourth album Like I Used To is a real revelation and a flashback at the same time.  It wouldn’t have been surprising to find out this album was really from 1967 or 1972 and was a missing recording by an act like the Pretty Things, the Kinks or the Electric Prunes.  The seven tracks offer varying versions of melodic, guitar driven “garage rock.”  Strong songs, tight arrangements.  The White Oranges are pretty sweet.

On Uhuh, Midland’s Eric Johnson takes a turn from his more recent work in Americana as a solo artist and in Big Band Blues with the 23 North Band.  Instead, Johnson leads a slick studio band through a collection of modern jazz tracks.  Seven instrumental tunes feature trumpet, saxophone and piano in addition to Johnson’s liquid guitar lines.  The whole package is very easy on the ears.

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