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The Trapps— Cheap Seats (independent)

There’s no way this is going to come off as complimentary through no fault of the Trapps, but it’s not meant as a slight; If Phil Collins suddenly got cool and joined an indie roots rock band, it might sound like Cheap Seats.

Say what you will about Phil Collins (I’ve certainly done so plenty of times over the years), but he’s got a fantastic voice, one capable of great range and depth of emotion. If he’s ever had the songs to really back it up, it’s virtually impossible to remember. Sean Schenker, frontman and principal songwriter for the Trapps shares with Collins that same vocal ability, but does far more with it over the 12 songs on his band’s new album than Collins could have in a thousand years.

Going on about the former Genesis singer/drummer does a disservice to Schenker and his bandmates, who’ve produced the kind of album that sounds as though it comes from a bygone era, but is in fact quite contemporary.

During the Vancouver Olympics, a collection of “inspirational” tracks meant to signify digging down deep, giving 110% and taking it to the next level was repeatedly hawked during commercial breaks. None of those songs provided a fraction of the rush with a million times more platitudes than what’s heard in the truly glorious “Never Quit,” which appears four songs into an already tremendous collection by the Trapps. With a soaring chorus effortlessly carried by the musicians, this is what inspiration is meant to sound like.

At varying times, the Trapps are augmented by a trio of fellow musicians, including violinist Tracy Bonham. That these guest appearances neither detract from nor overwhelm the music is a testament to the strength of the band, which harkens back to a day when musicians working together came on like a gang.

To paraphrase Dave Eggers, Cheap Seats may not be a work of staggering genius, but it doesn’t have to be. Instead, it’s something a great deal more. — Crispin Kott

Uncle Rock— The Big Picture (independent)

Like many musicians, Robert Burke Warren’s career has taken countless fascinating twists and turns, but it wasn’t until he took on the Uncle Rock persona that he really found his niche. The area is packed with musicians making quality music for kids, and Uncle Rock is among the very best.

On his latest album, The Big Picture, Uncle Rock continues his ability to hit the kinds of topics kids can get into (“Leave the Bees Be” and “My Friend Bigfoot”) while rocking with enough legitimacy that music fans of all ages can enjoy the ride.

If your teenage years are but a distant memory—whether or not you have children of your own—chances are you’ve been reminded of the march of time by hearing music from your own personal youth presented in a nostalgic way. This is what happened when a snippet of Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself” suddenly surfaced in the already-rollicking “Shake it Off!”, the second track on The Big Picture. Whether it really is an Idle reminder or not is irrelevant, because it’s there. And it’s just a small part of what makes Uncle Rock’s music so enjoyable, even for grownups. The Big Picture, like the very best music ostensibly made for kids, has the uncanny ability to remind those of us who haven’t been a kid for some time what it felt like to get up and dance for no particular reason other than it’s a good time.

Perhaps one of the greatest things any musical artist can aspire to is to not be a phony. To cut the mustard both with kids and grownups is no small feat, but it’s something Uncle Rock manages quite effectively with an album that makes rock music, rockabilly and a host of other styles sound fresh. No wonder kids like the guy so much. —Crispin Kott

Professor Louie and the Crowmatix— Whispering Pines (Woodstock Records)

The trouble with tributes is that it's often hard to know where an artist's own persona begins and ends.

Professor Louie and the Crowmatix's Whispering Pines isn't just named after a song by the Band; it effectively serves as a template for an album that not only evokes everything from the pastoral mood of the Band to the distinctive vocals of Levon Helm, but which also covers two of their songs and a third, "Ain't No More Cane," which is a cover of a cover. Plus there's a take on Band co-conspirator Bob Dylan's "Serve Sombody" and further covers of artists like Warren Zevon and Leonard Cohen.

Whispering Pines is best approached as a collection of songs you might hear if you wandered into a bar and found Professor Louie and the Crowmatix on stage; you'd likely have a great time, drinking beers, tapping toes, occasionally singing along. You'd marvel at the skill of the musicians, their cohesive drive always heading in the same direction, whether taking scenic country roads or rough city streets. And chances are, you'd come away feeling like you've had a pretty great night on the tiles, with a perfect soundtrack to such an endeavor.

Where Whispering Pines ultimately proves frustrating is that there's so little of Professor Louie and the Crowmatix to get to know. With so few originals and such respect being paid to their heroes, it's hard not to wonder how things might have been a little different. 10 songs in and the question is answered with absolute certainty, as "Melody of Peace," the album's closer, truly stands out. Recorded in Prague with the Czech Radio Symphony and Kuhn Choir backing the band, Professor Louie and the Crowmatix finally step out from the shadows of their forebears. Hopefully the next time around they'll follow their own road, as it seems a worthy journey to take. — Crispin Kott

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