“The Sacred Shakers Live” by the Sacred Shakers

The Sacred Shakers
The Sacred Shakers Live
Signature Sounds

3½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Through the years I’ve attended a number of happenings—church services, jams, shows with local performers—where the singers are untrained. That doesn’t necessarily mean bad, off-key, or off-time, just no cultured vowel sounds or beautiful diction. These are people who enjoy singing and don’t keep a scorecard on perfection.

Meet the Sacred Shakers. They combine a variety of related music styles, including old-time, bluegrass, country, and rockabilly to serve up their own brand of spiritual music, performed by a group that includes musicians who are Christian, agnostic and Jewish. It’s clear this isn’t your usual gospel offering. “Take Me In Your Lifeboat” has been performed and recorded by a long list of bands, but you may have never heard this particular combination of banjo, electric guitar, driving upright bass and drums. Guitarist Jerry Miller released his own CD (reviewed here) a year ago and is an ace instrumentalist in band of top-notch players.

The leader of the Shakers is Eilen Jewell. She has a good voice with a timbre that sets her apart from most female vocalists. Her version of “All Night, All Day” has a swinging, bluesy feel, with a good break by Miller and an a cappella ending that showcases the harmony singing of the group. Her rendition of Hazel Dickens’ “Won’t You Come and Sing For Me” is reminiscent in tone with Dickens’ version but more relaxed, with blues influences.

“Little Black Train,” a song done by Woody Guthrie and the Carter Family, has a dark feel to it with the banjo playing a repeating riff and some haunting minor chords from other instruments in the background. The fiddle music of Daniel Kellar plays an important role on this number, but on some tracks he must be trying for an old-timey sound as he comes across a bit scratchy. The band takes a different approach to “Lord, I Am the True Vine” with a rock-and-roll kick and then singing it like a gospel revival, drawing a picture of everyone waving their hands and swaying to the music. “Run On” shows off their harmony singing with the background singers responding to the lead.

This is a CD of contrasts, recorded live with an enthusiastic reaction from the crowd. Banjo balanced against rock and country electric guitar, rockabilly bass, a drummer who knows how to drum, very good harmonies, a fiddler that is sometimes impressive and sometimes not, and enthusiastic vocalists. This is music with religious roots but not producing a religious atmosphere, played for enjoyment, not conviction. If for no other reason, you need to listen to it because of Miller’s guitar work throughout.

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“Dancin’ Annie” by Bill Emerson and Sweet Dixie

Bill Emerson and Sweet Dixie    
Dancin’ Annie
Rural Rhythm Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

So many albums from notable bluegrass pickers these days feature the headliner with an assortment of other similarly famous pickers, and the results are usually satisfying—but that they are satisfying in the same way gets old after a while.

It’s refreshing to see banjo legend Bill Emerson (Country Gentlemen, Emerson & Waldron) sticking to the tried and true approach of leading an actual band and trusting them to do great work in the studio.

Sweet Dixie is filled out by Teri Chism (bass), Wayne Lanham (mandolin), and Chris Stifel (guitar), all of whom play and sing with the effortless precision that we have long enjoyed from Emerson’s banjo. They split the vocal leads just about evenly, and their harmony singing and instrumental breaks are done in service of the song. Like I said: an actual band.

Stifel penned and sings a smooth lead on the bouncy title track, while the rest of this 12-track 39-minute CD features songs from other writers. The three on which Chism sings lead are particularly nice fits for her voice and this band: the hard-driving—both lyrically and sonically—”Two Hands on the Wheel,” Liz Meyer’s “The Only Wind that Blows,” and a simple, sweet version of “Walkin’ After Midnight.”

The three gospel numbers manage to be fresh and meaningful, rather than trite or preachy, and the two instrumentals—Emerson’s own “State Line Ride” and Lanham’s “Whistle Stop”—make this one a fun listen in the car.

The two best tracks here are “Days When You Were Mine” and “This Heart You Have Broken,” which isn’t surprising when you see that they’re both previously unrecorded songs from the songwriting team of Pete Goble and the late Leroy Drumm.

This approach to album-making has its roots in the 1970s, but Emerson and Sweet Dixie prove it still works.

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“I’d Do It All Over Again” by the Easter Brothers

The Easter Brothers
I’d Do It All Over Again
Pisgah Ridge Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

“I’d Do It All Over Again”—the Easter Brothers version, not Crystal Gayle’s lost love lament—is a song about years of labor for God, years of serving through music. Their faith is still strong and they’d do it again if they had the chance. This is the kind of message that you don’t sell without some history (like a singer belting out “I Did It My Way” before his thirtieth birthday) The Easter Brothers have sixty years of history in the business. You may have seen them on a Gaither show and people in the gospel world will make a connection because of Jeff and Sheri Easter, popular gospel performers and members of the Gaither troupe. Jeff is James Easter’s son and they recorded a video in the church James’ father started in 1963.

The musicians include a drummer (Steve Schramm) and pianist Les Butler. Butler is a very active, multi-instrumentalist in gospel music while Schramm is the bass player for The Easter Family, the only non-Easter member of this group of Russell Easter’s grandchildren. The other musicians are familiar names, all top-drawer musicians: Byron House (bass), Cody Kilby (guitar), Andy Leftwich (fiddle, mandolin) and Justin Moses (banjo, Dobro). Numbers like “Let The Hallelujahs Roll” are a fusion of bluegrass instrumentation and gospel styling with brothers trading vocal leads on the chorus. It would be hard to find a bluegrass or gospel crowd that didn’t like this music.

“The Lost Sheep” is one of many numbers written by the brothers. This number, the story of a man who had lost his way in life, features narration in a voice just a bit used by age, the perfect setting for a story of trials and tribulations. Time takes its toll on vocal cords and we’ve heard it in many voices: Johhny Cash, some of the performers on Country’s Family Reunion, some of the bluegrass legends still on the circuit. These changes in voice seem to make no matter to the fans and the Easter Brothers do remarkably well with their singing. Their voices havechanged some with the years but are as good as ever. “Old Fashion Talk With The Lord” is another number where they swap leads and fill the choruses with their dead-on, excellent harmony. This song has a clear and unquestionable message:

Do you feel all alone, with burdens and sorrows

And is your heart heavy, too?

And it looks like the Savior is a million miles away

It’s not the Lord that’s drifting, it’s you

Their message of being changed by faith and a life devoted to faith sounds in song after song. “I Didn’t Leave Like I Came” is a fast-moving number that is a message of change and happens to be excellent bluegrass. “The Crossing” touches the inevitable we all face and the promise of salvation. I’m writing the words down to sing this one in my church.

Great singing and harmony, excellent musicians, the good message. What more could you want?

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“Gathering” by Aaron Ramsey

Aaron Ramsey
Gathering
Omni Artists Productions

5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

EDITOR’S NOTE: Larry Stephens submitted this review in July 2013, but I must have hit the wrong button after I edited it, which caused it not to post publicly. I’m very sorry for this error, especially over such a fine project. —AKH

Aaron Ramsey is an excellent mandolin player. He debuted in a family band with his father, Michael, but by his early twenties he was (and is) playing with Mountain Heart, taking the spot vacated by Adam Steffey. Making the transition from being a band member to leading a project isn’t always easy, but Ramsey has made the leap to Gathering in fine style.

He can sing as good as he plays the mandolin. The only familiar song that he sings lead on is “John Henry Blues,” an old Osborne Brothers song. He tears into it along with a distinguished group of accompanists, including bandmates Jason Moore on bass and James Van Cleve on fiddle, Patton Wages (banjo, Volume Five) and the great Tony Rice on guitar. There are two other familiar songs on the CD, “One Tear,” another Osborne Brothers song with Mountain Heart leader Barry Abernathy guesting as lead vocalist, and Bob Dylan’s “Fare Thee Well,” featuring Ricky Wasson (American Drive, New South) singing lead and including Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Jeff Partin (resophonic guitar, Volume Five), Rice and Brian (banjo) and Maggie (bass) Stephens.

Ramsey sings lead on the other cuts, several of them written by his father, Michael. Religious themes figure heavily in some of Michael Ramsey’s songs, including “The Healer” and “Seek Out the Lost” (featuring Ron Block [banjo], Randy Kohrs [resophonic guitar] and Tim Stafford [guitar]). But father can write and son can sell a good love-gone-wrong song like “Dark Days and Desperation.” “No Ones Found Her Yet” (Aaron Ramsey and Josh Miller) is a great mystery song, a woman disappeared and the man that loves her going crazy with loss while her killer runs loose. “The Streets of Abilene” strikes off in a different direction, telling the story of Marshal Tom Smith. The song, claiming Smith never used a gun, is slightly at odds with the Wikipedia version and fails to mention how he eventually lost his head, but it still makes a good story.

This CD underscores Ramsey’s strengths in songwriting, singing and on the mandolin, but it’s also a display of his versatility. On various numbers he plays sweep guitar, bouzouki (a mandolin cousin), upright bass, guitar, banjo and resophonic guitar in addition to mandolin. Listen to “The Souls of Pioneers” and you’ll discover he’s no slouch on any instrument he picks up.

This is a great CD by an impressive young musician. He needs to be in front of the mic and in the studio often.

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“Nothing to Lose” by Dave Adkins

Dave Adkins
Nothing To Lose
Mountain Fever Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Dave Adkins is a bluegrass and country singer. He has the type of voice that could probably be nothing else. He’s in the Junior Sisk camp. not the high lonesome sound of Monroe or Stephenson. This new CD, while aimed at the bluegrass market, has some strong country numbers in it.

“Silence is Golden,” a sentiment most married couples, especially if they have children, can agree with, is a popular song title. If you love classic rock you’ll remember the big hit Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons had, as well as the Tremeloes. Bobby Bare had a different song out with lyrics by Jackson Browne. And then there’s the Lynn Anderson song. Adkins does the “Silence is Golden” written and recorded by Trey Ward and it’s the kind of song that stops me in my tracks to say, “that’s country.”

“Pretty Little Liar” is another good country number. Co-written by Adkins and Edgar Loudermilk, it tells the oft-repeated story of love outside the bounds of marriage. The man places the blame on the woman, telling us how he lost his wife and family, which is, of course, half the story. This one has a strange twist, telling how she hasn’t been seen in years but it’s hard to find her where we left her in the ground. Bluegrassers love their murder songs. (“We” left her in the ground is a subtle twist, since the rest of the song is from the perspective of only the man. We can now debate who his partner in the deed was.) Loudermilk is a good vocalist and plays bass on the CD. He took Ray Deaton’s place in IIIrd Tyme Out before leaving last fall to form a partnership with Adkins.

Studio musicians were used on the CD. Jeff Autry (Lynn Morris Band) plays guitar, Jason Davis from Junior Sisk’s band plays banjo and IIIrd Tyme Out bandmates Wayne Benson and Justen Haynes play mandolin and fiddle. These are some of the best musicians in the business, so you know the CD is going to be some great music. Bluegrass isn’t all about speed, but a hot song does show of the licks of an instrumentalist. “At Least It Wasn’t Life,” one of two prison songs on the CD, moves at a clip that makes rhythm guitarists sweat. “Pike County Jail,” one of several songs composed by Adkins, is a great bluegrass number that includes moonshine, prison, and wanting to get out and start over with a wife and family. This is the story of life for some folks, as is “Moonshine in Moonlight,” with daddy running shine at night because times are poor while mama and the kids tend to the farm and garden in the daytime. Looking back at the end of his days, the singer reckons life was pretty good back then even if times were poor.

Adkins includes an excellent gospel number that’s been recorded in three genre and was sung a lot the past year or so by Marty Raybon. “I Can’t Even Walk (Without You Holding My Hand)” should be recognized as one of the great gospel numbers in bluegrass and country. And, speaking of great songs, what country music lover hasn’t heard George Jones sing “Tennessee Whiskey?” Adkins turns in an excellent performance, one I like better than David Allen Coe’s 1981 version.

Adkins makes a good mark on bluegrass with this release and we should see some good things out of his partnership with Edgar Loudermilk.

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“Memories of Mine” by Charlsey Etheridge

Charlsey Etheridge
Memories of Mine
self-released
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

There is some fine singing and playing on this CD, and very good song selection. I’m guessing most people who hear it will be satisfied with that, but some are going to be puzzled at how it all ties together.

“Wayfaring Stranger” is familiar to anyone who has been around bluegrass or country music. This arrangement is entrancing, and Etheridge has a great voice for it. Effects have been used to give it a large, concert hall sound and the background support of Randy Kohrs on the Dobro and Aaron Till on the fiddle and mandolin are as good as I’ve ever heard on this song. A different approach is used on “Land of Beulah.” The backing music is kept at a minimum with guitars, fiddle and mandolin. Etheridge has added herself on a harmony track along with Kohrs. This is an effective, beautiful way of doing this old song.

Etheridge has a top supporting cast on this album. In addition to Kohrs and Till, you’ll hear Cody Kilby on guitar, Buddy Greene playing harmonica, Shad Cobb playing banjo, Jeremy Abshire (fiddle), and Tim Crouch (viola and mandolin). It’s no surprise that the instrumental support is excellent.

In addition to the two songs already mentioned, she includes three other gospel numbers: “Take My Hand Precious Lord,” done slow and with feeling, just her vocals and a piano; “Amazing Grace,” also done slowly with a chord progression that goes beyond the standard three chords and only a rhythm guitar, viola and mandolin behind her; and “The Old Rugged Cross,” with a cello included in the instruments, but done at a faster, workmanlike tempo.

“Tennessee Waltz” is another done with minimal instrumental support and she sings it well, but throws a curve, at least for me. I’ve heard and played this countless times as a verse and a chorus. That’s the way its composers (Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart) did it as well as Patti Page. I somehow missed the Emmylou Harris version but according to another site there was originally a second verse and chorus with a new second verse added by Leonard Cohen – more or less the Emmylou Harris and now Ehteridge version. People have been revising songs forever (usually just forgetting the lyrics) and Etheridge gives a good performance regardless of the lyrics used.

Rounding out the CD, she does the first swing version of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” that I recall as well as the first blues version of “In The Pines.” Different, but they work if you’re not tied to tradition. Another surprise is “Filipino Baby,” a World War II song that I haven’t heard on a new recording for decades, giving a slower, more feeling version than Cowboy Copas’ hit version.

So, with all this good singing, what’s so puzzling?

Etheridge comes out of nowhere with a CD sent out for reviews. A fair inference is the CD is targeted for commercial success, but she has only covered songs well known to most everyone and recorded (perhaps excepting “Filipino Baby”) dozens, maybe hundreds of times. It’s a strange mix of songs in some unusual styles and the CD leads off with two gospel numbers. It feels like just what she says it is: memories dedicated to her parents and grandparents. She isn’t following the usual road map for a commercial album, but I hope people prove there’s more than one path to success. If you buy it, you’ll enjoy it.

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“Coal Miner’s Prayer” by JD Messer & Sanctified

JD Messer & Sanctified
Coal Miner’s Prayer
Kindred Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

I’ve been hearing a lot of CD projects aimed at bluegrass listeners that cause me to waffle around about their bluegrass sound. I like traditional bluegrass but I’m open to including country and other genres as long as they still tick the bluegrass switch in my mind. A lot of people seem to be heading toward a “modern” sound to attract more listeners but leaving some bald spots in the ‘grass.

There’s no searching for a description for JD Messer’s music. It’s bluegrass. Messer has one of those voices made for bluegrass music and his band provides a solid foundation for the singers. Their passion is gospel music and they do it well. Messer wrote all but two of the songs (co-writers on two) and he’s a fine songwriter. “I’ve Been Waiting” features good harmony singing and an interesting banjo arrangement. The banjo player, Brent Amburgey, seems to wander off a time or two but it’s a great way to use the banjo on a song like this. “Peter Stepped Out” retells the story of Peter stepping into the water on the Sea of Galilee. It has a solo fiddle intro that has an old-timey sound before the banjo kicks in. The band again offers some very good harmony vocals.

Bluegrass has plenty of stories of despair and “When Mama Talks To The Man” goes as deep as you can go, but tells us about the power of prayer when mamas pray. The message may be hard for non-believers to embrace but no one can argue about how good the music is. And on the topic of sadness and loss, “Lunch Box Letter” tells the story of a miner who has a letter from his wife every night in his lunchbox. He dies after an explosion, but he leaves a lunchbox letter to his wife before he goes. Traditional music, traditional themes.

“Rain,” an old gospel number, is done a cappella and you get to clearly hear bass player Kayla Amburgey’s harmony vocals. She also sings lead on “Solomon,” a story of the biblical king. A plus if you hear a song you want to learn is the lyrics included inside the package. Other musicians are Kenny Stanley (guitar), Albon Clevenger (fiddle) and Jerry Sturgell (Dobro) with Messer playing mandolin. Sturgell sings lead on “When I Step Out” and he’s okay to listen to but hard to understand.

From “Road Less Traveled,” with it’s eerie story of a life saved by an angel and interesting chord progression, to the driving sounds if “I Don’t Deserve,” Messer and Sanctified make good bluegrass music. This one definitely goes onto my stack of play-them-often.

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“When Shadows Fall” by Ann & Phil Case

Ann & Phil Case
When Shadows Fall: Songs in the Popular Style
Dry Run Recordings
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Artisanal is an adjective that’s pretty effective marketing products these days, from cheese to furniture to mobile phone cases. In an era when most of us eat non-food that we buy with a virtual representation of money that is in itself fake and has not been based on something of value for the last century, more and more of us are realizing that Jefferson was right, that free people making and doing what they like in free markets are more likely to become and remain happy than those who submit to the cube farms and factoires, the bureaucrats and banks.

Based not far from me in Germantown, Ohio, Ann & Phil Case are gentle yet expressive singers, and musical artisans of the highest quality. So are their tools, which include here a 1929 Martin 0-21 guitar, a Washburn tenor ukulele (Lyon & Healy, 1931), a Regal Dobro model 27 from the mid-1930s, a Yale 000-size guitar (Larson Brothers, ca. 1920), and a 1924 Conn alto saxophone.

When Shadows Fall is dreamy and eclectic—like a trip up and down the radio dial sometime in pre-television America—moving from hillbilly fiddle tunes culled from rare 78s (“Rocky Mountain Goat,” “Havana River Glide,” “Evening Star Waltz,” and “Frolic of the Frogs”) to cowboy and country songs made popular by the likes of Jimmie Rodgers (“Treasures Untold,” “Any Old Time”), Gene Autry (“Old Missouri Moon,” “My Old Pal of Yesterday”), Patsy Cline (“I’ve Loved and Lost Again”) to a couple of tunes by notable (at the time) ukulele stars ((I’m Crying ‘Cause I Know I’m) Losing You,” “Breezin’ Along with the Breeze”).

A couple of inspired song pairings make this 17-track, 47-minute disc really pay off: first, Ann’s a cappella vocal on the black gospel “Steal Away” followed  by the husband-and-wife harmonies on the Louvin Brothers’ “I Steal Away and Pray” and, second, the twin 1930′s dancehall hits “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and “We’ll Meet Again,” ornamented by Phil with ukulele, Dobro, alto and tenor saxphones, and string bass.

While some musical artisans are content to master one style, When Shadows Fall make it plain that Ann & Phil Case master whatever they put their hands to.

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“There’s No Greater Message” by Jussi Syren & the Groundbreakers

Jussi Syren & The Groundbreakers
There’s No Greater Message
Snowflake Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Bluegrass was born in the United States but its popularity is worldwide. There are several examples of across-the-waters bluegrass groups and one of the very strongest ambassadors is Jussi Syren of Finland. Syren’s love for bluegrass and sister genres is evident because he also has the Jussi Syren Rockabilly Revival and Ranch Riot, a traditional country music band.

The Groundbreakers are a four-man group including banjo, mandolin, guitar and bass, and they added a guest fiddle player and some guest vocalists for this recording. Syren included several self-penned numbers like “Brother Joe the Gospel DJ,” a mid-tempo number with good drive, telling the story of the rise and fall of Brother Joe, the victim of a sold radio station. It has a traditional sound that I believe would have been heartily endorsed by Mr. Monroe. Another Syren number is “The Sacrifice,” a song with strong drive played in mostly minor chords. This is good gospel bluegrass. He’s a little hard to understand on this one but I’ve heard American-born singers who are more difficult (does anyone really understand Bob Dylan?).

He has included a number of songs that American audiences know well. “Garden In The Sky” goes way back to Louisiana Lou (Eva Conn) and the ’40s. Syren does it as multi-part harmony and it has on old-time sound to it. Unfortunately, some of the vocals are mixed under the instrumental tracks and are hard to hear, but it’s still a good track. “We Need A Whole Lot More of Jesus (And a Lot Less Rock And Roll)” is a Wayne Raney song that a lot of conservative parents used to sing, and there’s “Echoes From the Burning Bush” and Hank Williams’ “When God Comes and Gathers His Jewels.” One of the best tracks is Dottie Rambo’s “Mama Always Had a Song To Sing.”

A great, if obscure, number is “Vision of John,” composed by Curly Dan, released in 1975 by Curly Dan, Wilma Ann and the Danville Mountain Boys (Bluegrass Discography). There’s also the fast moving “A Sign of His Wonderful Grace.” “The Old Rugged Cross” is done as an instrumental and it’s a workshop in melodic banjo playing.

The artists releasing many of the bluegrass CDs today are reaching for a more modern sound, hoping, I guess, to attract a different crowd to the music by including drums and other instruments and songs that don’t sound much like what many of us call bluegrass. There’s No Greater Message is bluegrass. Grab a copy if that’s the kind of music you want to hear.

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“Walking Song” by Ron Block

Ron Block
Walking Song
Rounder Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

As longtime banjo player and guitarist for Alison Krauss’ Union Station, Ron Block’s clean and woody tones are familiar to most fans of bluegrass and acoustic music. His singing voice—heard on lead vocal occasionally on an AKUS album or live show—is more suited to the folky Americana sounds prevalent on his two previous releases for Rounder—Faraway Land (2001) and DoorWay (2007).

Walking Song is even more folky, even though the A-list of bluegrass pickers one would expect are in attendance: fellow AKUS members Barry Bales (bass), Dan Tyminski (vocals and mandolin), and Jerry Douglas (Dobro) are here, along with mandolin aces Sam, Bush, Mike Compton and Sierra Hull and everyone’s first-call Nashville fiddler, Stuart Duncan. Evelyn and Suzanne Cox are also along for harmonies on a couple of tracks.

Kate Rusby’s gorgeous voice adds sweet, rich harmony to Block’s on “Walking Song,” “Summer’s Lullaby,” and “Chase Me to the Ocean,” all of which, along with “Colors,” are highly mannered pastoral songs with a James Taylor flavor.

“The Fields of Aidlewinn,” featuring an Irish bodhran and accordion along with soaring harmonies from Tyminski, and “Ivy,” a solo guitar and voice workout that would make Tony Rice proud, are more engaging, as are the two gospel songs “Jordan, Carry Me” and “Rest, My Soul.” Another sacred song,”What Woundrous Love is This?” is given a grand instrumental treatment by Block (banjo, guitar, and National Duolian) and Jeff Taylor (accordion and pipe organ).

The combo of Block, Bales, Duncan, and Hull do cut loose on bluegrass versions of “Devil in the Strawstack” and “Shortnin’ Bread,” while Alison herself sings harmony on “Nickel Tree Line,” a driving number that should make it into future AKUS live setlists.

Block wrote all but three of the fourteen tracks on this disc, which could have benefitted from more variety in the form of a couple of well-chosen covers and perhaps a couple of lead vocal turns from one of the fine singers who offer only harmony vocals here.

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