KC music

Album review: Vi Tran Band - American Heroine

 
You have a dream. You work hard for it. You make many sacrifices. You find friends who share your passion. You create something. You hope for success through hard work and determination and talent. It’s a classic storyline—America loves when good things happen to people who work hard, and Vietmanese-born Vi Tran is second to none in personifying that American dream. He’s an actor, a musician, a tireless voice for and supporter of the arts community, and a pretty decent card player to boot. Above all, his singing, songwriting, and storytelling have been heard around Kansas City through his shows with Hot Caution, a lively cover band featuring a rotating lineup, and his 2010 EP Goodbye, Summer. Hearing him at Czar Bar or the Kill Devil Club or any of the other venues he plays, however, cannot properly prepare you for what you will hear with his debut full-length release, American Heroine. It’s an album that is less about singles and radio play and more about musical theatre and song craft. Tran’s professional Facebook page tells of the literary inspiration he called upon to help create Heroine’s sonic grandeur; it’s a projection that is tied in with the album artwork, which hearkens to the golden days of Hollywood and all the magic that art was and is capable of.
 
He is fond of saying that he is “part wheat fields, part sea salt,” and this is his Wheat album, a tribute to authors such as Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Fitzgerald—authors whose protagonists have dealt with struggles and challenges that mirror those of Tran’s family as they struggled with the challenges of being refugees in a new world. Those stories have been with him for the better part of a decade, waiting for the right time to be shared. When he felt that time had come, and he had amassed the strongest overall support staff possible, he threw himself completely into the project with the intent to make American Heroine look and sound like a well-worn paperback novel.
 
What you get, and what is instantly discernable from the opening typewriter solo in the intro, is an album that is less indie and more musical theatre—less “make it radio-ready” and more “knock ‘em dead, kid.” The earnestness and sincerity in his vocals grabs the listener from the first measures of the title track, where the aforementioned literary tribute takes on a literal tone as the protagonist leans on his inspirations for storytelling (“You are the most precious pearl / You are an archetypal Steinbeckian girl … If this were Hemingway, you’d meet your end in a hospital tent / And I’d watch it happening, wouldn’t be able to do a thing”).
 
“The Charmer” finds Tran trying to woo his way into a lucky lady’s heart in spite of his growing sense of self-doubt and timidity; as Ben Byard’s bass nimbly skips and encircles the twosome as they eventually connect … or do they? The next two tracks, “All the Time in the World” and “Goodbye, Summer” are revisited from his earlier EP, and the three years that have passed since their initial appearance have been good to the songs as they (along with the rest of American Heroine) find added depth and strength from the added instrumentation, along with the benefit of more life experience which Tran’s vocals bring forth with focus and solidity. “The Killing Rain” brings the strings to the fore, as Christine Grossman, Christine Gross, and Sean Hogge all offer virtuoso performances, matching the fragility of Tran’s lyrics and delivery (“I shake and shudder / crack and break / my leaves, my litter / my small mistakes”) with beautifully delicate skill. To me, this is perhaps the most instrumentally stunning track of all …
 
… which makes it all the more effective as a lead-in to what I think is American Heroine’s tour de force: if this truly was a soundtrack to a Broadway musical, “Waterlily” would surely bring the house down on a nightly basis. You know how it is when you observe someone doing what they do, knowing that they’re at the top of their game, and it’s a beautiful thing to see and/or hear? That’s what “Waterlily” represents to me, as every bit of it—vocals, instruments, performance, and production (brilliantly mastered by Joel Nanos at Element Recording Studios)—is awe-inspiringly on point. It starts gently, but when all the players come in about ninety seconds into the song, it’s pretty much as good as any music moment could possibly get, and that sense of top-level execution continues to the end. Jerod Rivers’ percussion feeds the intensity and energy of the song, and though the vocal collaboration of Tran and Katie Gilchrist can be heard throughout the album, here they simultaneously challenge each other, lean on one another, and lift each other higher and higher. “Waterlily” is simply staggering in its majesty and bravado.
 
And this brings us to the final chapter of this narrative, one with which many of Tran’s legion of admirers may be unfamiliar. He usually keeps “The Code” under wraps (along with “The Killing Rain”) because, in his words, “they aren’t well-suited to noisy bar gigs. They tend to be ignored outside an intimate storytellers’ setting. I knew they'd reach their full potential on the album.” The trumpet and piano of Hermon Mehari and Mark Lowrey respectively lead the way into a tale of a man searching for just the right time—and the right way—to make his feelings known to the object of his desire (“Sometimes it’s easier to shoulder the whole world / Than to muster up the courage to admit that you’re in love”). Tran closes the album by laying his soul bare, leaving no emotion unspoken—and no tale untold.
 
To briefly return to the title track, Tran emotes: “I should have learned my lesson well / From these great literary cautionary tales.” It’s a lesson that he has not only learned well, but one he now teaches the listener—and does so with grace and courage. There’s a commonly used phrase in the world of poker: “all-in,” which is what it’s called when you put every one of your chips at risk. Sometimes it’s an act of desperation, when you’re almost out of the game and you want to take one last shot at a big payoff so you can keep playing … but other times it shows supreme confidence, a sense of invulnerability, when the player is so sure of what he has that he dares anyone to challenge him. Vi Tran knows he’s put everything he has—emotionally, mentally, financially, and every-other-ally you can think of—into his new album …
 
… and I think American Heroine is a winning hand.
 
Vi Tran Band is:
Vi Tran: vocals, guitar, typewriter
Katie Gilchrist: vocals
Sean Hogge: guitar
Jerod Rivers: drums, percussion, lap steel, vocals
Ben Byard: bass, vocals 
 
*****
American Heroine was recorded, mixed, and mastered by Joel Nanos at Element Recording, © 2013 SeaWheat Songs. Album collaborators include Eryn Bates (string arrangements), Mark Lowrey (piano, organ), Hermon Mehari (trumpet), Rachel Gaither (violin), Christine Grossman (viola), and Christine Gross (cello). Album cover art direction, design, and layout by Vi Tran, Eric Lindquist (Lindquist Press), Matthew Naquin, and Mackenzie Goodwin. Photography by Forester Michael.
 
The album will be released on October 8, but you can attend the release party next Friday, October 4 at Kill Devil Club at 7:00 pm. Special guests include Mark Lowrey, David George & A Crooked Mile, and Jessica Paige. Vi Tran Band will be performing with the American Heroine Orchestra. Ticket link.
 
 
--Michael Byars
 

Michael Byars is still chuckling silently to himself over his hidden Beatles reference he snuck in there. He thinks he’s just so damn clever. Good job, Michael. Way to go.

*clap … clap … clap … clap …*

 

Free Counter

   

New single: "Rolling Like A Stone" by Msg Ctrl

As autumn finally lumbers up from hibernation and blankets our town with a most delicious layer of hoodie weather, your natural inclination might be to grab a steamy pumpkin-flavored caffeinated beverage and throw on your favorite sad bastard, woe-is-the-world playlist. After all, this is truly the season for The Civil Wars and Elliott Smith.

But summer is not officially gone for another few hours. The new single from Msg Ctrl, the “rock hop” project of former Shudder members Dustin Blakeman, Wurm Collins, and Kara Babcock, will be your guide as you metaphorically throw back one last lemon drop poolside. Aggressive and fueled by a slick and driving electronic landscape, “Rolling Like A Stone” is the perfect pairing for a jam packed summer dance party.
 
I enjoy the three-headed-monster vocal assault. Blakeman and Babcock mostly handle the singing duties, throwing the frisbee back and forth during the first two verses. They most effectively join together on the choruses with a dominating unison hook that will surely carom about my head as I try to sleep tonight. During these strains, Collins offers mostly effect vocals, little ticks and outbursts to keep the tension high. He shines as he is featured during the more rap-paced third verse, with a particular nod to the cackle and da-da-das announcing it.
 
Thematically, Msg Ctrl has absolutely no shame in shooting for the abstract and philosophical bullseye. With references to Anton Chekhov and the courage to throw lyrics like “appendices” and “diodes and vacuum tubing” into a three-minute pop song, I’m sure the band secretly snickers to themselves as you mindlessly gyrate to their Marty McFly-heavy message.
 
This track is solid, especially for a debut single. Word is there are several more releases from Msg Ctrl coming soon. Give them a like, go download the tune (the first 200 downloads each month are free), and keep an ear out; Msg Ctrl has got some great things cooking.
 
 
 
--Zach Hodson
 

Zach Hodson is a monster. He once stole a grilled cheese sandwich from a 4-year-old girl at her birthday party. He will only juggle if you pay him. I hear he punched Slimer right in his fat, green face. He knows the secrets to free energy, but refuses to release them until "Saved by the Bell: Fortysomethings" begins production.

He is also in Dolls on Fire and Drew Black & Dirty Electric, as well as contributing to various other Kansas City-based music, comedy, and art projects.

Free Hit Counter

   

Album review: Maps For Travelers - Change Your Name

 
How often is it that you find a punk band that can reach a diverse audience as Maps for Travelers has? The band, recently signed by No Sleep Records, put out its debut full-length release Change Your Name. And I will attest to the album’s ability to have at least one track that can—and will—grasp you.
 
The No Sleep newbies, who are now in the company of great punk acts like Balance and Composure, The Wonder Years, and Kansas City natives Coalesce and The Casket Lottery, have been working on Change Your Name for over a year. The wait is finally over, and the album is nothing less than magnificent.  
 
At face value, this is just another Kansas City-bred punk album, but closer inspection reveals more. The little cogs of the massive sound machine that is Maps will bring to your attention their sheer talent. Several intricate parts make this four-piece more than your average Midwestern emo/punk band.
 
Sparing no time, they hit you hard with the unbelievably heavy “Good Life” and “Life on Repeat” straight out of the gate. These first two tracks carry the essence of what Maps is about. Mingling hearty, clean vocals and tones with angst-ridden yells pushes the sound to something more post-hardcore.
 
A change of pace hits on the third track “Matter of Time.” The tempo slows and though there are no screaming vocals, Zach Brotherton’s singing picks up a scruffy sound. The angst still lingers here as well. But promptly as the album continues, the hard-hitting sounds return.
 
Beyond being great at the heavy stuff, Maps makes a decent slow jam. The majority of “Swoon” is tuned down. The closing statements of the album, “All Your Friends” and “They’re Learning Fast” will help bring your adrenaline down. The slow jams are soft and soulful. Carrying the same intensity as the previous tracks in the album, they hit just a bit more gently.
 
The lyrics are raw, the vocals are clear, the music is heavy and excellently executed. Whatever your genre of choice may be, something on Change Your Name will resonate in your head.
 
Maps For Travelers was signed by No Sleep Records back in July. Change Your Name was recorded and tracked at Black Lodge Recording, Element Recording by Joel Nanos, and Massive Sound Studios by Paul Malinowski. It was mixed by Jason McEntire at Sawhorse Productions (St. Louis) and mastered by Trevor Sadler at Mastermind Productions (Charlotte, NC).
 
 
 
This Friday, September 20, you can party with the guys from Maps and Radkey, as they play The Rendezvous in St. Joseph at 9 pm. Facebook event page. Their next show in Kansas City will be on Friday, October 11 at Czar with Restorations and Noah’s Ark Was A Spaceship. Ticket link. Facebook event page.

 
--Steven Ervay 
 

Steven Ervay is super rad. 

Free Hit Counter

   

Crossroads Music Fest Highlights, 9.14.13

 
 
The beginning of fall also coincides with Kansas City’s Crossroads Music Fest, which entered its ninth year this past Saturday. This year, the fest covered six venues: Crossroads KC (behind Grinder’s), The Brick, Czar Bar, Midwestern Musical Co., Green Lady Lounge, and Collection.
 
Several local bands and a number of national bands graced each stage, a variety of music ranging from jazz to hard rock to soul to single acoustic acts to a 15-person outfit. Here are some of the highlights from earlier shows in the evening.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Crossroads Music Fest is organized by Bill Sundahl at Spice of Life Productions. It was co-sponsored by Midwest Music Foundation, Kansas City Lawyers & Accountants for the Arts, and FanAddict

Free Counter

   

Album review: The Grisly Hand - Country Singles

 
(Photo by Todd Zimmer)
 
The thought of today's "country music" genre is enough to make this reviewer's skin crawl. Almost no other recollection is more irritating than the memory of high school dances gone by, predominantly backdropped with a Garth Brooks soundtrack. Flashes of two-step, ill-fitting cowboy hats and oversized belt buckles, some nasty substance called chaw, and off-key, twangy impressions spring to mind, stereotypical as they may sound. And if 16-year-old me knew that 30-year-old me would willingly and constantly blast a country album while driving around town, she would be wildly perplexed.
 
Fortunately, none of those memories is drudged up while hearing The Grisly Hand's latest full-length effort, Country Singles. The six-piece group masterfully composed twelve solid tracks (along with a special bonus track if you have the album; and if you don’t, get it now—you won’t regret it), presented in a way that brings a broad appeal to its music, yet maintains its core. Country Singles is still, in essence, a country album, but it incorporates a healthy blend of classic country with pop, rock, folk, blues, and soul influences. The personal touch each member contributes to each song provides an extra boost of originality and character, and the production by Joel Nanos at Element Recording invites a quality that reaches far beyond the typical lengths of a locally-produced record.
 
In previous works, the strength of each track was primarily found in the pristine vocal harmonies of Lauren Krum and Jimmy Fitzner. But with a careful eye on production by Nanos, a new combination of members (this is Mike Stover's and Matt Richey's first recording with the group), and an ever-maturing sense of songwriting, Country Singles stands out as a premier local album.
 
The characteristically pleasant vocal harmonies by Krum/Fitzner continue to pervade the majority of the LP, but they push through each track with a more confident collective voice and project a stronger personality through their colorful brand of storytelling. One of the best examples of this is on "(If You're Leavin') Take the Trash Out (When You Go)," a jaunty track that nonchalantly tells the story of a breakup, driven by Krum’s intrepid vocal delivery and Fitzner’s accompaniment. On this track—among several others on Country Singles—Richey shows his ability to outshuffle any drummer in Kansas City, helping carry a consistent heartbeat throughout the LP’s most classic country tunes.
 
Guitarist and mandolin player Ben Summers also puts his songwriting abilities on display throughout the album, on songs like “Municipal Farm Blues” and “Coup de Cœur,” a lovelorn duet between him and Krum, accompanied by Stover’s masterful, lonesome steel guitar work.
 
These are just small examples of the diversity of the LP, which is best captured in the middle of the album with “Amusia” and “Blind Horse.” While the first four tracks contain the signature Grisly sound, these two are direct counterpoints that retain just enough of the band’s style to shine slightly brighter than the others. The songs show a deeper side of the band, both in emotion and composition; and perhaps the album’s finest moments are found on these tracks. One is the haunting minor-note instrumental/vocal performance that resolves at the bridge of “Amusia.” The other sort of just occurs throughout “Blind Horse,” as the physical and emotional force of Krum’s voice is pitted against intermittent breaths of a simplistic but equally-as-compelling piano, also played by Krum.
 
Country Singles is The Grisly Hand’s finest work to date, because the band maintains its roots and style while integrating a variety of influences and emotions, along with plenty of humor (the idea and liner notes were inspired by a rural newsletter for lonely singles), dynamics, and depth. No doubt this is already a strong contender for local album of 2013.
 
Yesterday, The Grisly Hand released a video for “That’s Not Affection,” directed by Dan Myers. Check it out below!
 
The Grisly Hand is:
Jimmy Fitzner: vocals, guitar
Lauren Krum: vocals
Johnny Nichols: bass, keys, vocals
Matt Richey: drums
Mike Stover: steel guitar, bass
Ben Summers: guitar, mandolin, vocals
 
 
You can check out The Grisly Hand on a big stage this Saturday, September 14 at Crossroads Music Fest. The band will play Crossroads KC at Grinder’s at 8:10 p.m. You can buy tickets in advance at this link for $15, $20 at the gate.
 
 

--Michelle Bacon

Michelle is editor of The Deli Magazine - Kansas City, and also plays drums Drew Black & Dirty Electric and bass in Dolls on Fire and The Philistines. One member of The Grisly Hand claims to be toothless, and she knows which one it is. Do you?

Share this story on Facebook 

Free Hit Counter