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 (Above:  The video for “Self Sabotage” off the Lawrence band Fourth of July’s sophomore album.)

By Joel Francis
Ink magazine

Fourth of July  singer Brendan Hangauer appears on the cover of the Lawrence-based, indie quintet’s sophomore album seated next to a pretty blonde. Although she’s looking at him and leaning in, his arms are crossed and eyes stare straight ahead. The pair may be close in proximity, but they seem miles apart emotionally.

This is often how it goes in the closing stages of a relationship, when the pair faces loneliness and, of course, vast tracts of time to flip the whole scenario over and endlessly analyze.

These are the times that Hangauer, his brothers Patrick and Kelly, and Brian and Brendan Costello — another pair of siblings — relive on Before Our Hearts Explode. Breaking up, as the saying goes, may be hard to do, but it has rarely sounded like this much fun.

The album opens with “Friend of a Friend,” the story of an ex-girlfriend’s rebound lover. Driven by acoustic guitar and organ and powered by a nimble  electric guitar, it’s too bouncy to be bitter. The track sets the template for the next 40 minutes: an intimate survey of love’s rubble,  via jangly guitars and slacker vocals. It’s Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks filtered through Camper Van Beethoven.

It’s also a ruse, albeit an effective one. Hangauer is broken and hurt but refuses to let his guard down. For every telling lyric such as “Don’t be so sure of things/not even wedding rings” or “you know you ruined us/when you slept with that little slut” there are a plethora of la-la-la or ooh-ooh-ooh choruses to mask the betrayal.

The facade breaks in only a couple places. “Song for Meghan,” the first ballad, arrives midway through the record. Hangauer’s unvarnished craving for an absent love resonates in Adrianne Verhoeven’s lovely vocal countermelody.

This is followed by “Moving On,” a song as caustic and cynical as anything by Elvis Costello. It also has a sweet undercurrent as Hangauer recalls brighter days. The same trumpet that amplified Hangauer’s longing on “Song for Meghan” now cuts through the track like a ray of sunlight forcing its way into a dark room through a crack in the shades.

Before Our Hearts Explode succeeds at having it both ways — a breakup record that provides the perfect accompaniment for playing Frisbee. Like all relationships it is never black and white. The good times are tucked alongside the most painful.

Keep reading:

thePhantom – “Bohemian Seduction Grooves”

A Shooting Star finds home with the Young Dubliners

Catching up with the Hot Club of Cowtown

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By Joel Francis
Ink Magazine

“Seduction” is the key word in the thesis-length title of thePhantom’s new EP, Bohemian Seductive Grooves for the Gay Soul. But thePhantom, aka Kansas City rapper/producer Kemet Coleman, would rather have you in his head than in his bed.

The five-track release is thePhantom’s attempt to translate the urban theory he’s been soaking up as a student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City into urban beats and rhymes. Dropouts needn’t worry. The vibe is more relaxed than the last day of school, with wordplay more effortless than a third-grade spelling test.

The low-key production on opening track “Midnight Seduction” sets the mood. ThePhantom’s words are set against a wash of synthesizers perfect for that late-night comedown when the energy starts to fade but sleep is still a long way off. “Downtown,” the second cut, bumps the tempo, but the rest of the album plays like lost tracks from a chill-out compilation.

ThePhantom says his master plan is to unite Kansas City’s diverse citizenry on the dance floor, a place where both blue-collar and artisans are equally comfortable. Of course if that effort creates a gathering of eligible women, thePhantom’s fine with that, too. On “Just Right” he makes the case for romance without stooping to the crass cliches common to the genre.

On December’s Destroy and Rebuild, thePhantom had an entire album to present his titular concept. Padded with a five-minute instrumental, the EP’s 22 minutes are ample time for thePhantom to gather his bohemians and gay souls, but not long enough to keep them on the dance floor. The result feels more like an outline than the conclusion. Sadly, that’s exactly what this is. ThePhantom has announced this EP will be his final project. Even so, he leaves behind a body of work worth further study.

Keep reading:

Steddy P and DJ Mahf – “While You Were Sleeping”

KC’s MCs throw down this weekend

Jazz, hip hop collide to celebrate landmark album

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By Joel Francis
Ink Magazine

Steddy P takes care of his fans. Since Steddy’s debut album in 2008, fans have never had to wait more than a few months between new offerings. This month Steddy dropped the While You Were Sleeping EP/mixtape to keep fans happy until the emergence of his next full-length album. But While You Were Sleeping is more than a stopgap release. Six new cuts show Steddy’s recent activity in the studio. But more fun is the second part of the album: 13 tracks from the back catalog, remixed by DJ Mahf.

Mahf, who oversaw Steddy’s 2009 album, Style Like Mind, clearly had a blast marrying “Kenneth Arnold” to the “Super Mario Bros.” video game soundtrack. “Miss Your Coffee Table,” one of the few odes to the fairer sex on the mixtape, incorporates both Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest and LL Cool J’s “I Need Love.” Other tracks pay tribute to early Kanye West, Jay-Z, DJ Shadow and the Nappy Roots. That Steddy’s original verses stand up against such recognizable backgrounds is a testament to his clever wordplay and intricate delivery.

At times Steddy’s delivery recalls that of Blackalicious’ Gift of Gab. Steddy does a good job of changing textures when necessary, and recruits great guests such as Ces Cru, Mathias and Jbomb to further vary the vocal patterns. Steddy’s best performance across the 19 tracks comes early. “BARS (Loser’s Club Remix)” is Steddy’s answer to repeated invitations to freestyle battles. After calling out so-called Midwestern rappers who quickly vacate to the coasts he revs into double time. It’s not quite Twista-fast, but impressive nonetheless.

Although they appear first, the new tracks almost seem secondary. Steddy comes strong out of the chute on “Enough” and “Bars,” but the production falters on “Steddy Persistence Pt. II,” the third cut. Each song is handled by separate producers. The tracks don’t flow together well, and the quality fluctuates.

On “No Doz” Steddy uses a violent slasher/horror film metaphor to establish his lyrical dominance. His words are threatening, but try as it might, the chintzy synthesizer loop can’t be considered sinister. A similarly vanilla loop is featured in “And It’s Like That,” which manages to include a shout-out to Steddy’s former home turf of Mizzou, to KU and even to the UMKC Roos.

The final new song, “WindOverHead,” is the most successful. The production includes hints of the ambient and industrial, as well as snippets of saxophone and opera over an understated piano melody. Steddy shines across this landscape, calling out Tech N9ne and Mac Lethal and marking his IndyGround territory.

Despite a few minor missteps, While You Were Sleeping is a nice place for longtime fans to regroup and experience Steddy’s catalog in a different light. Newcomers will find the album a handy place to catch up. Best of all, it’s free.

Keep reading:

KC’s MCs throw down this weekend

Nas and Damian Marley – “Distant Relatives”

Jay-Z – “The Blueprint 3″

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