Two Releases From Sparta Sound

Paul Whyte

Last week I reviewed the new eclectic folk album from Rich Mattson and the Northstars that was recorded by the well known musician and sound engineer, Rich Mattson, out at his Sparta Sound studio in Northern Minnesota. This week I looked at my desk and two more albums that happened to be in the CD pile were also recorded with Mattson out at Sparta Sound. The two recordings are very different from each other with the only real similarity being that they were both recorded by Mattson out at his studio.
I really enjoy receiving CDs packaged the way they were intended to be distributed to people over getting a blank CD that has the album’s title written on it with a Sharpie or getting a link to download an album or something like that. The reason for this is that I get to experience checking out the information the artist felt important to include before even popping in the CD to give it a few a listens.
This week I’ll be looking at Susan Odella’s album “All I’m Asking” and The Belfast Cowboys’ “The Upside to the Downslide.” Both albums have solid musicianship but there were a few things I wondered about.

Susan Odella: All I’m Asking

I’ve reviewed a number of instrumental albums over the years and they can be a little bit of a challenge to try to effectively describe. On this album Susan Odella plays original piano music and brought in three musicians to accompany her on select tracks with this instrumental album. The musicians include Keith Secola on flute, Paul Mayasich on the dobro and John Ely on the pedal steel guitar.
What caught my eye before putting this CD on was in the liner notes. “I wasn’t able to finish the lyrics for All I’m Asking, but the joy I’ve found in writing music again is all I could ever ask for,” states Odella in the notes. On the back of the album, it states that this album is piano instrumentals. I wish she wouldn’t have said that there were supposed to be lyrics for this but she couldn’t finish them. Odella is not signed with a label and appears to be doing the project through her own means. What’s the hurry? Not only were the lyrics not finished, it seems like they were never started. What would have been interesting is if there were even just one or two songs with lyrics on them to give the listener an idea of that aspect. It’s a total mystery and I’m left wondering how the music would have been different with human voice and lyrics.
The overall musicianship of this album is good but as an instrumental album it is very limited in what is going on. There’s a bit of a dramatic feel that underlies the beautiful and laid back piano parts that are going on with either just Secola’s flute, Mayasich’s dobro or Ely’s pedal steel. What is lacking is dynamic. Each song is just a continuation of the next and with titles like “The Raven,” “Winter Black,” “Darkness,” and “Nightfall” it seems like the album was written to be a soundtrack to an anime or with the flute, which seems to bring in both Celtic and Native American influences, perhaps a documentary or television show of some sort. The entire album has essentially the same feel except perhaps the songs, “Rainbow,” which is a bit lighter and the pseudo-ragtime tune, “Jiggy.”
I’m glad that Odella put forth the effort to record this album, she does have some talent. I’m sure those into easy listening instrumental music featuring the piano will be able to connect with this album. I was hoping for something to come out at some point and really grab my attention and that didn’t happen in my book. The tempo of the album stays roughly the same throughout, I’d dare to say the key of the album is pretty much the same and after a few songs, the piano parts start to become predictable. I’m willing to accept this album for what it is, but I am just left thinking about how it would have been if Odella had taken more chances. It would have been interesting to have seen something that had been more edgy or dark to juxtapose the smooth and carefree, and what about those unfinished lyrics?
Odella’s latest album can be found at It turns out this is her fifth release and albums with her singing on them are available. She has worked with country music going back to the 80s before taking on her current sound.

The Belfast Cowboys: The Upside to the Downslide

It’s pretty obvious that The Belfast Cowboys have been at it for awhile and are a tight and professional band that has gigged regularly. There are two versions of this band. The Belfast Cowboys are a nine piece: Terry Walsh (lead vocals/guitar/ harmonica), Dan Koqalke (guitar/vocals), Joe Loskota (keys/percussion/vocals), Joe Baumgart (bass/vocals), Dave Haugen (drums/vocals), Vic Volare (tenor sax), Paul Gronert (baritone/alto sax), Tim Martin (trumpet) and Matt Hanzelka (trombone). Other members who contributed to the album include: Dave Kirby (drums), Rodney Toogood (bass) and Rich Mattson himself on guitar. The other version of the band is called the St. Dominic’s Trio, which I think is safe to assume the three piece version of the band.
I had a chance to look over the album’s packaging before putting it on and what I immediately noticed is that there are five Van Morrison covers on this 12 song album. There is also a cover of “House for Sale” by Nick Lowe. So, half of this album is covers and over a third of it is Van Morrison covers. I like Van Morrison but covering five songs from any one artist on an album seems excessive to me. I realize that the band specializes in Van Morrison and their name is a nod to Van Morrison who came from Belfast, Ireland, but we’re not talking about one or two Van Morrison songs, there’s five.  
With that being said, I should focus on the things I liked about the album. While the band does have a knack for actually doing the Van Morrison songs justice, the original material is solid and well done. The album opens with the track, “Hard Working and Poor,” a lively funk/rock track that brings it from the bass lines to the sax solo in the middle of the song to the keyboard solo right after that. The song is short and sweet with some relevant lyrics to anyone who is hard working and poor.
Another track to stand out is the pop/blues tune, “Looking for the Northern Lights.” It’s light but sincere and the way the subtle guitar work melds in with the horns and piano to the way it gives way to some decent lead guitar work in the breakdown and gives way back to the verse is expertly laid down. These guys have their sound down and know how to come in and out at the right spots. The band is certainly capable of writing good original material.
The album ends of with the track with the track, “Rock Band,” and it really sounds like a missing Springsteen song. It actually references Springsteen and The Beatles, so I get the feeling that’s what they were going for. I’m actually not sure how I feel about how close to Springsteen this song comes off.
I think The Belfast Cowboys probably have a really great live set if this album is any indication. This album is fun to listen to and those who like a little funk, rock and Van Morrison should have no problem with it. There is plenty of fun stuff happening with the way the band works together between the transitions and breakdowns. I love the ability shown on this album but don’t know what to make of the lack of overall originality. It’s easy to get into, but I can’t help but feeling like I’ve heard most of this before, and I have.
The Upside to the Downslide can be found on iTunes. Visit for more information.


Paul Whyte

A South Shore native and University of Wisconsin-Superior journalism graduate. Lifelong musician, and former open mic host. Passionate about the music scene and politics.

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