2013 might go down as one of the more momentous years in Kansas City music. Bands like Radkey, Making Movies and Beautiful Bodies and artists like Samantha Fish are making big waves, nationally and internationally.
Bodies, winner in January of Warped Tour qualifier the Ernie Ball Battle of the Bands, is being courted by music labels and is now part of an East Coast tour with Reel Big Fish and Goldfinger. In September, Making Movies performed for Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli at the Hispanic Heritage Festival in Arkansas, and earlier this month the band performed several shows in Panama.
Fish partnered with Devon Allman — Gregg Allman’s son and a member of blues supergroup the Royal Southern Brotherhood — on a cover of Tom Petty’s “Stop Draggin My Heart Around,” which is on Allman’s solo record. She also appears in the video to the song. In November, Fish and her band open for the Royal Southern Brotherhood for 14 shows across Europe.
And Radkey is about to return from a long European tour that included a performance on “Later … With Jools Holland.” The band also has received plenty of media attention recently, including articles in USA Today and Interview magazine.
Many others are producing albums that are getting plenty of attention outside of Kansas City and the region.
In June, Ink presented the 10 best local music releases plus a list of other recommendations. Four months later, we have more to laud and recommend. Our musical cornucopia is running over this year. Indulge in and enjoy the bounty.
Beautiful Bodies, ‘Battles’
Comparisons to Paramore are inevitable and appropriate, but they tell only part of the story. The four-track EP “Battles” is 13 minutes of hard pop/punk rambunction, an explosion of melodies, harmonies, guitar fanfare and percussive pugilism. “Animal,” the opener, sets the prevailing attitude — defiance — which climaxes in the single, “Invincible,” a redemptive and convincing call to arms about being true to oneself. On the next track, “War Inside Your Heart,” which bobs and throbs to a dance beat, lead singer Alicia Solombrino is more measured and warmer in her preaching, though the lesson remains the same: Most of life’s battles start from within. Be strong. Win them.
** ‘Devil Fruit’ (EP)
Before Radkey’s most recent tour of Europe, the band recorded this EP so it’d have something new to sell from the merchandise table. This EP continues the formula that has been so ravenously successful for this trio of brothers from St. Joseph. Four buzz-saw punk tantrums via the Misfits and grunge are propelled by Dee Radke’s bottom-of-the-well growl, his locomotive guitar and the relentless rhythm section behind him: younger brothers Isiah, who fingers the bass and sings harmonies, and Solomon, who bashes the drums.
Recorded at Element Recording, “Devil Fruit” is the follow-up to “Cat and Mouse,” the five-song EP that created demand for more of the same. Things get furious, especially on “Overwhelmed,” and the lyrics get pointed on “Little Man,” a screed against a grandparent. But generally there’s more of the same: roaring punk anthems with sing-along melodies.
To order “Devil Fruit,” visit Radkey on Facebook and click on Merch Store.
The Architects, ‘Border Wars, Episode 1’
“Border Wars” is the first installment in a five-part multimedia project from this town’s most stalwart and indestructible rock band. The six-track “Episode 1” is packaged with a 72-page comic book, illustrated by Mallory Dorn, that introduces a high-concept tale of drugs, corruption, mobsters and romance. It’s a slick keepsake that gilds the accompanying gold: six songs delivered with muscle, sinew and an unflinching glare.
“Border Wars” is hard rock, wall-to-wall, but the assault changes throughout, showing off the Architects’ command of brawn and brain. “Heartbreaker” sounds Clash-ish or like something from Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros. On “The Shivers,” they ring and roar like AC/DC. And “I Chose Wrong” sounds like Bruce Springsteen veering headlong into unvarnished, hard-rock blues. Any record that name-checks Steve McQueen in the opening track is promising a cool, unwavering attitude. Promise redeemed. Mission accomplished. Stay tuned.
The Architects perform Dec. 8 at the VooDoo Lounge in Harrah’s North Kansas City casino. To order “Border Wars, Episode 1,” visit the Architects on Facebook and click on Merch Store.
Josh Berwanger, ‘Strange Stains’
Josh Berwanger’s resume includes the Anniversary and the Only Children. In the mid-2000s, fatherhood took him away from music. “Strange Stains” is his triumphant return. It’s a pop record with some rock underpinnings. Its charms are its sweet melodies, its crunchy guitar riffs, its aerated two- and three-part harmonies and Berwanger’s gift for brevity. The 11 songs here come and go in less than 30 minutes, and each is catchy and indelible. Along the way, you may think of Tommy Keane, Tom Petty, Big Star, the Kinks, Badfinger, the Beatles and a few 1960s garage-pop bands. But what you’re hearing are the sounds of a songwriter who has revived and invigorated his craft.
Josh Berwanger performs Thursday at RecordBar. “Strange Stains” is
available on iTunes and on vinyl at goodlandrecords.bigcartel.com.
Ha Ha Tonka, ‘Lessons’
Ha Ha Tonka is Brett Anderson, Lennon Bone, Lucas Long and Brian Roberts, a foursome from the Ozarks that has been making music for nearly a decade.
“Lessons” is the group’s fourth full-length, the second on Bloodshot Records and a departure from the previous three. Amid the usual instrumentation (guitars, keyboards, mandolin, drums), the band has imported strings, embroidery that adds color and depth to its organic, roots-rock sound. It’s a moody affair: wistful, regretful, melancholic, sanguine, elated. At times the lyrical themes conflict with the blue-sky arrangements, as in “Staring at the End of Our Lives,” a sunny pop song about reckoning the past with the future’s uncertainty, and the bouncy, head-bobbing “Colorful Kids,” another song about regrets and unfulfilled promises.
In a few places, “Lessons” feels drawn from other eras: “Arabella” opens like a porcelain ’70s folk ballad plucked from “A Rose for Emily,” until it erupts into something bright, heavy and orchestral and more contemporary, like an Avett Brothers tune (and then back-and-forth between the two). “Pied Piper” sounds like homage to the Band.
There was a time when this foursome from southwest Missouri seemed destined to be fenced in the recent new-folk corral, thanks to its acoustic foundation, the three- and four-part vocals and its joyous live shows. But on “Lessons” theband breaks away from that fashion, taking paths into more interesting terrains. Comparisons to Wilco are reasonable in a few places, including the title track. And it seems very likely that fans of the Avetts will find plenty to like here.
When you’re from the Ozarks and you give yourself a name like Ha Ha Tonka (taken from a state park in Camden County), you risk branding your band as a novelty act. On “Lessons,” Ha Ha Tonka takes its own advice and, instead of playing the same games and repeating lessons already learned, it shows signs of longevity: a need to experiment and grow and a willingness to try new ideas without completely ignoring its past and abandoning its strengths.
Ha Ha Tonka performs Nov. 27 at RecordBar. To order“Lessons,” visit hahatonkamusic.com.
Betse Ellis, ‘High Moon Order’
With the Wilders on indefinite hiatus, Betse Ellis continues her own career auspiciously on “High Moon Order,” her second solo album. Ellis wrote six of the 13 songs here and arranged or rearranged several traditional songs. They all show off her considerable gifts as a songwriter, musician and performer.
On one of those traditional tunes, the lament “When Sorrows Encompass Me ’Round,” she sings its haunting lyrics over her fiddle to a melody she composed. On another, the jaunty instrumental “Dry and Dusty,” her fiddle jousts and dances with Roy Andrade’s banjo. And on the austere “Twilight Is Stealing,” she strums a tenor guitar as Andrade plucks his banjo and lays harmonies over her lonely lead vocal.
But “High Moon” also shows off her songwriting skills. Travel and life on the road are the themes here, and she introduces them emphatically on “The Traveler,” the album’s opener, a melancholic country tune that breaks into bright fanfare on the chorus, thanks to the small orchestra behind her, including co-producer Mike West (Truckstop Honeymoon) and Phil Wade, her bandmate in the Wilders. She can write an authentic Appalachian fiddle tune herself, too, including “Long Time to Get There” and “Stamper.”
Ellis lacerates the mood a couple of times: on the deranged “The Complainer,” featuring some wild-eyed electric guitar from Mike Stover, and on her visceral cover of the Clash’s “Straight to Hell.” Among those, she drops songs like “Golden Road,” a lambent country lament. It all jibes nicely on an album that is as luminescent as a harvest moon.
To order “High Moon Order,” visit fiddlebetse.com.
Maps for Travelers
** ‘Change Your Name’
“Change” is a hard rock whirlwind, a buffet of styles and treatments: math rock, prog-rock, hard-core and heavy indie-rock with a punk attitude. “Change” is the first full-length album from Maps, founded in 2010 by R.L. Brooks, formerly of Flee the Seen, and Zach Brotherton of Thunder Eagle (and others). It showcases a band resolute in its ferocity but willing to step back once in a while and let the smoke clear, as it does on “Matter of Time,” a four-alarm inferno of guitars, percussion and hair-on-fire vocals that climaxes four minutes in, then fades to black, gently, with a nice trumpet serenade from Brooks. Likewise, “They’re Learning Fast” is elegiac, a piano/trumpet ballad that brings the album to a warm, slow close.
Most of “Change” is orchestrated clamor and chaos, but buried within all that are melodies, harmonies, sing-along choruses — songwriting and crafting, in other words. In “World an a Wire,” the band proves it can deliver a pop tune with a brass-knuckle punch. And on “All of Your Friends,” the album’s longest track, it gets downright down-tempo and austere. But even on that one, you can hear the clouds gathering and the thunder in the distance.
To order “Change Your Name,” visit mapsfortravelersband.com.
The Vi Tran Band
** ‘American Heroine’
The music is cast in shades of folk and Americana, but it aims for something cinematic and grand. “Heroine” is ambitious, musically and lyrically, and it accomplishes its mission without committing acts of excess or pretense.
Tran is the leader of this stout and sturdy five-piece band, which includes Katie Gilchrist, a star vocalist and well-known actress in Kansas City. To upholster its sound, he enlisted some other big names: Mark Lowrey on piano, Hermon Mehari on trumpet and a three-piece string section that includes Christine Grossman, principal violist for the Kansas City Symphony.
Over the course of 10 songs, they deliver stories and vignettes about love, romance and life’s many challenges and reckonings as they pay homage to some of America’s literary giants. Tran is also an actor, which explains why this album is imbued with an air of theatricality. Its strengths are his knack for telling stories set to writing melodies, the harmonies he and Gilchrist lay down and the album’s warm, organic sound, which Tran helped create with help from Joel Nanos at Element Recording. All those charms are evident in the album’s showstopper, “Waterlilies,” a song as lovely as its title.
“American Heroine” is available at iTunes, CD Baby and Amazon.
** ‘Black Wind Howlin’ ‘
Like her debut, Fish’s second full-length is a blues album. Her first, “Runaway,” won the best new artist debut award at the 2012 Blues Music Awards. And also like her predecessor, “Black Wind” delivers her twists and takes on the genre. It’s a pastiche of the blues, not so much the kind associated with labels like Alligator Records, but the kind you’d expect from a writer who likes her classic rock as much as the blues — Tom Petty as much as Muddy Waters.
Over the course of 12 songs, Fish bounds seamlessly from swampy boogie-woogie blues (“Miles to Go”) to grimy rock-blues (“Kick Around”) to raw, unadorned Delta blues (“Let’s Have Some Fun”) to deep-soul blues (“Over You”). Throughout, she displays her ever-growing prowess on guitar.
The sound on “Howlin’” was forged by Fish and a formidable band that included Johnny Sansone on blues harp and three members of the Royal Southern Brotherhood, including her producer, Mike Zito.
Fish also enlisted Paul Thorn as her duet partner on the gut-bucket rock-blues tune “Go to Hell,” one of the album’s standout tracks. Be sure to stick around for the finale, a straight-up, honeyed country shuffle with fiddle and steel guitar called “Last September.” It’s another sign of her diverse roots and likely a sign of a future path.
To order “Black Wind Howlin’,” visit samanthafish.com.