Author Archives: VocalsOnTop

Album at a glance: Dreamgirl – Illuminaughty


Dreamgirl pushes forward with more synth-pop madness that was previewed last year for their first officially released EP, the brilliantly titled “Illuminaughty.” The attitude of this six-piece St. Joseph band is plucked straight out of Laural Canyon instead of landlocked Missouri. The songs help warm up 30-degree days with their light and poppy mood. Gentle symbol crashes adorn “Sweet Thang” with its swaying groove while “Teenage Blue” wanders through downbeat dream-pop melodies. The timely horns and fuzz guitar picking on “Pretty Sexual” sum up the album fairly well in themselves. The band is careful not to step on toes as the music is given space as each song unfolds on its own accord. This is surely an album for summer but maybe on a cold winter day the warm sound can keep us all toasty until then.

Key Track: “Sweet Thang”

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Posted by on April 12, 2015 in Album at a glance


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VOT Posters – The GasTown Lamps and The Empty Pockets at Cafe Acoustic

Poster for The GasTown Lamps and The Empty Pockets show at Cafe Acoustic in St. Joseph, Missouri on 4/11/15.

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Posted by on April 5, 2015 in VOT Posters


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VOT Cover Story: Phil Vandel

A stack of the Tuning Fork Magazine Phil Vandel was on the cover of in February 2015. Cover photo by Heather Kirchhoff

A stack of the Tuning Fork Magazine Phil Vandel was on the cover of in February 2015. Cover photo by Heather Kirchhoff

A successful artist has record sales, radio play and a big house with a hot tub, right? Success isn’t always measured in dollars and cents though and all of those things directly trace back to money. Phil Vandel is one of the more successful musicians in the area but many don’t know about him because he isn’t headlining shows in St. Joseph every month. His unique take on the music industry has carved him out a niche where he is extremely well known in certain circles without some of the normal markers of a successful music career.

His brand of radio-friendly country music hits right on the mark in the Midwest as he maintains a following performing both originals and covers. He can be found playing solo acoustic or for many larger shows he will break out his full lineup in The Phil Vandel Band for a louder and more dominating set. This is the incarnation you will likely see playing events like fairs and reserving his solo shows for bars and more intimate environments.

Vandel likely had all the traditional goals in mind when he started playing music at a young age; his songs blasting out of the radio, a big fat recording contract and of course millions of dollars. The way events fall into place has taken him in directions he never envisioned. He now has a long history of seizing opportunities when they arose, he would take chances by joining bands and traveling far from home to play shows in doing so. “Every decision you make changes your direction a little bit. Even if you are going straight down the road you are still being diverted slightly.” Vandel explains, “Next thing you know you realize you aren’t even on the same course anymore. All these little diversions are what makes the journey happen.”

It isn’t a commitment every musician is willing to make to spend this much time on the road. Vandel’s commitment created situations of great uncertainty where he was along for the ride just to see where the road would lead him. “I missed more birthdays and holidays than I ever care to think about, there are prisoners that have spent more holidays with their families than I have.” He says with a laugh. During this time he was a part of several bands, countless shows and wrote and recorded a massive songbook that is now largely forgotten.

Phil Vandel signs copies of the Tuning Fork magazine he was on the cover of for February 2015.

Phil Vandel signs copies of the Tuning Fork magazine he was on the cover of for February 2015.

His extensive time on the road in his early days of playing music paved the way for the career he now calmly enjoys. He currently has no records to sell, no recording contract and doesn’t spend months out of each year touring anymore. Despite all of this he has made the proper connections and done all the right things to be able to play large shows in places like Texas and Las Vegas. Much of the clout he has gained comes from his tireless work to support military personnel, whether they be active or retired and especially his support of wounded warriors.

He wasn’t always the huge devotee of the military, as he is known now, it is something that he came to appreciate as he was playing music. “The first wounded warrior thing I did was just a gig.” He says, “I wasn’t a big supporter of the troops and I wasn’t a flag waving guy.” After American Airlines put Vandel in situations to play for these people he began to know them and understand them. He developed and incredible amount of respect for what they had done and changed much of the direction of his life to help them out of that respect. “I realized at that point I knew I need to not only give back but I needed make up for all my years of foolishness I hadn’t given back.” Vandel says, “I went all in at that point.”

Since that time his status has grown to where he is invited to play huge benefit shows to raise money for those who need it. He also has had several occasions where he has hopped a plain to play one song for returning soldiers. He and Matt Snook did this several times with their emotional original song “Welcome Home.” Vandel also gets involved in projects to play in front of a massive amount of people when opportunity knocks and because he has put in the time and treated good people right, that opportunity seems to knock a little more frequently for him.

Recently he was chosen to write and record an original song for movie “The Hornet’s Nest” that was a starkly honest look at what American soldiers go though using real footage. His song he recorded for the soundtrack, “Tears of War” can be found right alongside high-profile artists such as Stevie Nicks and Kid Rock. Another project found him re-recording the 1974 Johnny Cash classic “Ragged Old Flag” and updating it for a DVD release of the video through the Non-Commissioned Officers Organization. The purpose of the video was to celebrate the illustrious tradition and journey of the United States flag. Vandel is a go-to name on projects like this because he has been there when groups trying to do good have needed him.

He details the early days of raising money for wounded warriors when he would play backyards in Dallas and be ecstatic about raising $500 for the cause. Playing shows like this for free didn’t appeal to most artists but Vandel seized the opportunity to give back. He continued to support these organizations and donate his time. In October of 2014 he was part of an event that raised $1.7 million over a two-day period. He was a given to be involved because he was one of the guys playing in a back yard trying create any support he could so many years before. He continues to be humbled by what support he can provide through his music career for these great people. His heart is constantly with them and his support is unwavering. This is what has led Vandel to be such an unconventional success in the music business. “It was never intended to be what it is,” he says “nothing in this industry ever is.”

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Posted by on April 3, 2015 in VOT Editorial


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250 Word Album Review: William Elliott Whitmore – Radium Death

William Elliott Whitmore - Radium Death

William Elliott Whitmore - Radium Death gets 4 stars

It might not have the impact that it did when Dylan went electric in the 60s but William Elliott Whitmore has now followed suit. With Radium Death he has definitely changed up his sound but it is still unmistakably Whitmore.

When the rockabilly style electric guitar rings out on the lead track “Healing To Do” you can sense a different mood immediately. The song has an instant urgency when accompanied by electric guitar and a full band than anything Whitmore has ever done. When he lets loose a primitive howl toward the end of the song you’ll be sold that this was a good move for him to go electric and add a band. The full band is used more sparingly on “Trouble in Your Heart” where he switches back to acoustic strums but he ramps it back up on “Don’t Strike Me Down” where he once again channels some punk angst. Whitmore didn’t completely convert however; he slowly plays his banjo on “Civilization” and picks at his electric on “Go On Home” by himself to give the vibe of his previous records.

Whitmore has a great idea of what works here and is careful not to take too many chances and bastardize his own sound. Every song here fits with the possible exception of the steel guitar waltz of “Can’t Go Back” that just doesn’t seem to fit Whitmore’s style well. Radium Death proves Whitmore could take on the electric and not look back if he wished, I doubt many people would complain after hearing this album.

Key tracks: “Healing To Do” “Civilizations” “Don’t Strike Me Down”

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Posted by on April 1, 2015 in 250 word album reviews


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The Vinyl Court: Nilsson – Schmilsson

Harry Nilsson - Nilsson Schmilsson

  • Artist: Nilsson
  • Album: Schmilsson (1971)
  • Purchased at: Yard Sale (Gower, MO) for $1

Harry Nilsson is a forgotten character in the history of rock in many ways. Palling around with The Beatles and enjoying radio play on several songs hasn’t seemed to save him from obscurity. His singer/songwriter piano style was paralleled by such acts as Randy Newman and Elton John. Being closely associated to The Beatles and in particular John Lennon led him to be one of the biggest proponents of gun control in the 80s after Lennon’s murder in 1980, Nilsson would later pass away from a heart attack in the mid 90s.

“Schmilsson” remains his classic album to this day. It possessed the hit ballad “Without You” that sounds like it inspired every 80s ballad you’ve heard and possibly more famously the slightly gimmicky song “Coconut.” This record is much deeper than those songs though, “Gotta Get Up” is an inspiring song to kick off the album and later the flooring funk grooves of “Jump In The Fire” are unlike anything else Nilsson ever recorded. The solitary “Early In The Morning” with just Harry on organ and impressive vocals also left its mark for decades to come.

While this album is great, a physical characteristic jumps out at you as well; it is a “dynaflex” record. Dynaflex basically means it is so thin you might think your needle will punch right through it when you put it on the turntable. It is so thin and flexible that it literally will flop around while you hold it. This shockingly doesn’t lead to a disappointing sound quality (possibly indicating a lack of need for 180 gram vinyl.) RCA tried this experiment for a few years in the 70s and ultimately ceased production even before the decline of vinyl hit.

Rating: B+

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Posted by on March 31, 2015 in The Vinyl Court


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Album at a glance: The Center State – Close Enough To Miss

The Center State - Close Enough To Miss

The Center State’s full-length debut is an upbeat group of acoustic songs where gentle picking is paired with a soft violin and great vocal harmonies. The yearning “Proud Man” is lead singer Jeremy Sharp’s guidebook to life as he expresses his lessons learned in a yielding tone. The title track “Close Enough To Miss” finds McKenzie Davidson leading the vocal charge before giving way to one of the record’s quintessential moments with a choir-style sing-along. The songs play subtle but keep from wearing thin. The contemporary folk stylings here are most closely related to groups like the Milk Carton Kids and even Death Cab for Cutie if you are looking for a more mainstream comparison. The clean production and concrete songwriting will make this album a solid listen every time.

Key Track: “Close Enough To Miss”

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Posted by on March 27, 2015 in Album at a glance


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Album at a glance: Empirics – Odophilia

Empirics - Odophilia

The Empirics is St. Joseph musicians Eddie Miles and Aaron Furst making a mellow metal album in the vein of A Perfect Circle and other bands that know how to ease off the throttle. The 7-minute instrumental opener “Mechanism” sheds the faint hearted from the melodic music that follows. One of the more rigid tracks, “About You” has some Filter style vocals and angry guitars on a mission. The album is moody throughout but always keeps restraint to maintain its melodic themes. The brooding tones still fill the songs with tension. The band is never more angsty than on “Internal” where they proudly earn the parental advisory logo on the album cover. “Odophilia” is a solid debut, putting more concentration on ambiance and mood than being loud, making it more accessible than many hard rock albums.

Key Track: “About You”

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Posted by on March 22, 2015 in Album at a glance


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