Back in the saddle: Two Valley bands release new albums after a bit of a hiatus

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 09-18-2023 9:04 AM

My Kind of Life — LeFever

Dawn Lepere and Jeff Starns met years ago at an open mic in Ohio and soon forged a musical and personal connection. They dreamed of making a career in music, too, especially after they won a blues competition in Ohio and were invited to perform as a duo at the annual International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee.

Then real life intervened — a move to the East Coast, jobs, parenting, paying the bills — and music mostly got sidetracked.

But in the last year, the Amherst couple, who go by the name LeFever, have revived their act, in part by releasing what they call their first serious recording, “My Kind of Life,” an album that showcases their songwriting and guitar work and a sound that embraces blues, indie rock, country and more.

The seven songs of “My Kind of Life” were tracked live this spring at SpiritHouse Music in Longmeadow with Lapere on vocals and acoustic guitar and Starns on lead electic guitar. They were joined for the sessions by Frank Manzi on bass and backup vocals and Rich Adelson on drums.

Lepere and Starns, who moved to Amherst in 2010 when Starns took a position at the University of Massachusetts Amherst — he teaches in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences — had gotten to known Manzi, the veteran Valley singer-songwriter, several years ago through some other musical circles.

As Lepere recalls, Manzi called her some time earlier this year “when he heard we were looking for a bassist, and he said, ‘I’ll do it!’ And then Rich joined us, and we got ready to go in the studio.”

Lepere, who wrote five of the songs on the new record — Starns wrote the other two — says she and her husband have played most frequently as a duo over the years, concentrating in particular on the blues.

“But now that we’re at a point where we’re starting to play out a lot more, we really wanted to have something people could take home after a show,” said Lepere. “So we wanted to do something with a full band and do it [an album] right.”

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Doing the recording live (some overdubs were added later) was initially “really nerve-wracking,” said Starns. “We were new to being in a studio, and we hadn’t played much as a full band. But [SpiritHouse] really made us feel comfortable and did a great job with the sound.”

Indeed, the album has a clean, crisp sound, something especially notable on the fluid, wiry tone of Starns’ guitar. He initially studied classical guitar and learned some jazz theory, too; he’s a longtime fingerstyle player as well who until fairly recently had mostly played acoustic guitar rather than electric.

Lepere, meantime, sings in a lower timbre that seems best matched to blues-flavored tunes. The album’s first two cuts, “Bitter Honey” and “Down to Me,” both delve into that sound, especially the latter tune, a rocking number with a call-and-response chorus and a story about moving on from a failed love.

The couple explore a more country-flavored sound on “Better,” while “In My Mind” has a bit of a 1970s southern California, folk-rock vibe, a love song with a chorus of ‘Cause you, you’re on my mind / And I love what’s going on in my mind.”

Lepere and Starns say their musical revival is tied in large part just to having more time; now that their college-age daughter is on to a different chapter of her life, the couple have “a whole lot of other songs we want to bring out for audiences,” Lepere said.

LeFever plays as a trio with Franz Manzi Oct. 1 at Glendale Ridge Vineyard in Southampton, as a duo at Burgy Brews in Williamsburg Oct. 8, and as a full band at Luthier’s Co-op in Easthampton Nov. 11.

Country Club Creeps — Original Cowards

Combining elements that recall Neil Young, the Rolling Stones, Dinosaur Jr, Wilco and other rootsy bands, Original Cowards offers a healthy dose of indie-rock sturm und drang, with guitar-heavy tunes that mine the zeitgeist of our alienated age and probe the vagaries of love.

And after delays caused by the pandemic and the demands of day-to-day life, the band is releasing a new album, “Country Club Creeps,” that includes guest appearances by a number of Valley musicians, giving the new record a range of textures, including a bit of country.

Led by John Crand on guitar and vocals, Original Cowards includes Riley Godleski on drums, harmony vocals, and occasional keyboards, and Leo Hwang on bass. Crand, who writes all the songs, says their final arrangements are put together by the full band.

The new album, with nine songs as a digital release and eight on vinyl, was recorded over the past couple of years by Justin Pizzoferrato at Sonelab in Easthampton. The band had hoped to begin recording the songs earlier than that, Crand said, but then the pandemic arrived to shut everything down.

“After that, it took a while for us to get back together and pick up where we’d left off,” said Crand, who lives in Northampton and teaches high school English in Connecticut. “There was this sense of ‘How do I do this again?’”

That said, the band eventually found its groove: The album opens with the straight-ahead rocker “Burned by the Sun,” with lyrics that offer a sense of menace to an unnamed person: “When you’re at your most vulnerable / When you’ve taken a hit / That’s when I’ll slide right in and aim the kick.”

Guest musician Andy Goulet adds weeping pedal steel guitar to two of the album’s slower tracks, the country-flavored “Phoebe” and “Lowlands.” The dreamy “Phoebe” is particularly appealing, a song about a girl with “sad eyes / and roller skate skinny” who the singer falls for hard but remains out of reach.

Crand says he doesn’t write songs in a conscious style, but that having listened to so much different music over the years, sometimes specific influences can show up. The driving “Dream Mind,” he says, “definitely has some Dinosaur Jr elements.”

The grungy “Lotus,” meantime, is a blast against complacency and the decline of democracy — “Being fed our oblivion by fat political swine / Being fed our oblivion, one lotus at a time” — while the hard rocking title song conjures grim images: “May polar bears gnaw on your bones / May wasps never leave you alone.”

With a laugh, Crand said those lyrics were not specifically aimed at or inspired by anyone in particular; they’re more about “channeling something from Hieronymus Bosch.”

Other guest musicians on the album include Phillip Price (piano) on “Lowlands”; Patrick Garland (keyboards) on “Fall into Me”; and Adam Bosse (lead guitar) on “Country Club Creeps.”

“Those guys all added something really special to the album.” said Crand. “I’m really grateful to them.”

Original Cowards will play at The Drake in Amherst Sept. 21 at 8 p.m. with Winterpills and Fancy Trash and they’ll play an album release party, with their guest musicians, at The Divine Theater at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke Oct. 20 at 8 p.m. (Lucky Shots opens).

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