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Opinion: Local studio does well; review of new releases

January 26, 2012
By MARK J. MILLER - Weekender Co-Editor ( , The Herald-Star

This week I talk about a coup for a local recording studio as well as review two recent releases from Sony/Legacy featuring contemporary gospel great Kirk Franklin and the latest - and probably last - release by the seminal hard rock band the Scorpions.

First the good news for local music fans - Mike Ofca's Innovation Studio in Steubenville recently celebrated the release of "So Nice to Meet You," the Pittsburgh-based, punk-pop band Punchline's latest album released Jan. 3 on its own Modern Short Stories label.

As you may recall from a Weekender cover story a year or so back, Punchline recorded an entire album - "Delightfully Pleased" - at Ofca's studio. The band also recorded portions of some tracks for its "So Nice to Meet You" EP.

The album was the No. 1 download for rock albums on iTunes on its initial release, beating releases by both Metallica and the Beatles for the day! This puts Ofca and his studio on the national map, and to think it happened right here in Steubenville.

Ofca also saw another client - the Pittsburgh-based Gene the Werewolf - also climb the rock charts on WDVE-FM - one of the few local bands to ever be featured on the station. Ofca also plays guitar for the band, which recorded a version of "Pittsburgh Steelers Polka 2011" - also recorded at Innovation Studios - that was a huge hit in the football city during the Steelers' last trip to the Super Bowl.

I think it's important this be recognized that we have a studio with a national reputation in our backyard. It goes to show that creativity can, and does, happen where excellence and craftsmanship are involved. Congratulations and kudos to Mike!

"The Essential Kirk Franklin," released this week, features two CDs with the sometimes-controversial black gospel genius' output since his debut, "Kirk Franklin and the Family," released in 1993. An epic adventure showcasing the many facets of Franklin's unique gospel vision, it also shows why he's ruffled some feathers in the gospel community, as Franklin freely and generously borrows from rap, hip hop, modern R&B, smooth jazz, reggae and even rock for his raucous gospel creations.

Franklin's critics just don't get it. While the music may be cutting edge and contemporary, there's still a lot of old-school, call-and-response black gospel choirs along with soloists to bring the passion and the heat. The music also keeps its focus strictly on the message of Jesus and stays there. The simple fact is gospel music is supposed to inspire people to listen to the message.

If it's boring, no one's going to listen. I know I won't.

Most contemporary gospel music bores me to tears - the same four acoustic chords drowned in syrupy, cheeseball production and "heavenly" singing. Ugh!

Not Franklin's music. He's in your face, from the first note to the last, with wonderful singers, top-notch musicians and dynamic arrangements. Franklin makes gospel hip, and that's smart - it's fun to listen to, as well as inspiring.

Franklin himself is an interesting guy, and he reminds me of George Clinton from Parliament and Funkadelic - it's his vision, he writes the material and produces everything but actually doesn't really perform himself, save for a few raps here and there. And it's obvious Clinton has been a major influence on Franklin. He's got his "family" and cadre of performers, and he's also crafted an urban image that young African-Americans can relate to, similar to what Clinton did in the 1970s. What's the beef, critics? Do you want to reach an audience, or don't you?

The disc also highlights some of Clinton's fellow gospel-inspired guest artists and believers, such as the great Stevie Wonder, reggae artist Papa San and Cheryl "Salt" James of Salt N Pepa. There's even a snippet of a sample from the P-Funk masterpiece "One Nation Under a Groove" on "Stomp." This guy knows what he's doing.

None of this would mean a thing if the music wasn't any good, but it's great. Franklin makes spirituality fun, like a party. I think Jesus would approve.

German rockers the Scorpions have seemingly been around forever - actually, since 1965 - crafting a blend of pop hooks and hard rock that sometimes strayed dangerously close to Spinal Tap territory. I believe the Scorpions amps really do go to 11, but there's no faulting the band's way with a hook or the secrets to its longevity.

It looks like the fat lady had sung, and the Scorpions are taking one more arena rock bow - we'll see if the band actually retires, kind of like the Gene Simmons-led Kiss' never-ending "last tour" - but the band is going out with a bang and on a high note, no pun intended.

"Comeblack" is the unfortunate name for the band's last album hurrah, and it features some FM rock radio retreads redone in the studio - "No One Like You," "The Zoo" and the ubiquitous "Rock You Like a Hurricane" - along with some surprises, including covers of songs that influenced the band, including the Rolling Stones' "Ruby Tuesday," the Beatles' "Across the Universe," "All Day and All of the Night" by the Kinks and the wonderful "Tin Soldiers" by the Small Faces.

I once saw the Scorpions years ago at Star Lake, and it was an enjoyable, solid and entertaining show. "Comeblack" is kind of like that - a nostalgic trip back to when rock and roll was fun, dangerous, subversive and silly. It's all heartfelt in its way and worth a listen.

The Scorpions last goodbye may not rock you like a hurricane, but it may sway you like a small microburst.

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