250 word album review – Ashley Raines & The New West Revue – Gutter Mansions

Ashley Raines & The New West Revue - Gutter Mansions


Ashley Raines has spent years spinning tales of the downtrodden. On his latest release he uses his semi-rotating cast of the New West Revue to deliver a similar message with a very different sound. His last record “It Could Be Worse” found him dabbling with some keyboards and horns, now he has taken that direction a step further.

The result is a rather elegant solution to his songs being quiet and heavy to digest. Possibly influenced by the influx of jazz in the Kansas City area of late, Raines and cowriter Vanessa Aricco use a mix of organ and horns to give the songs more variance and bounce making them more dynamic from one another. The subject matter is still rather brooding and ominous as Raines’ music tends to be. On songs like “I’m Afraid of People”  he spits lines like “All my friends are strangers” and on “Let’s Be Alone Together” he croons “our kingdoms are just ruins rich in time.” There is a short piano ballad in “When All The World Hated Me” and a bouncy walking bass line fuels “Get Yourself Together” just adding to the deviations in the songs on this effort. The album ends with the acoustic plucking of “Tired of the Scene” where Raines delivers the song with the gentle touch of a love ballad but biting lyrics like “I’m tired of the scene and the scene is tired of me” backing up the album’s narrative of isolation and adjusting to a changing world.

His bleak lyrics continue to be as good as ever but it’s easy to see an improvement in the sound of his records. Musically, Raines continues to grow and mine his poignant mind for lyrical pay dirt.

Key Tracks: “Let’s Be Alone Together” “I’m Afraid of People” “Tired of the Scene”

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Coming Soon: Vandoliers and Austin Lucas at Knuckleheads in Kansas City 3/9/19

WHO’S PLAYING?  Vandoliers (Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas) and Austin Lucas (Bloomington, Indiana)

Vandoliers photo by Mike Brooks

Vandoliers, photo by Mike Brooks

WHAT TO EXPECT?  The cutting edge of country music, not the Thomas Rhett crap you hear on the radio but rather the true blood flowing through the veins of America. These bands are traveling the country and sleeping on floors for a chance to play their honest, fiery music across The States.


Vandoliers will be the headlining act on a big Saturday night in Kansas City. The newly signed Bloodshot Records band is taking their fresh and energetic take on Americana to the road. The six piece band has a tinge of a mariachi sound with their horns and upbeat, bouncy rhythms but don’t think they aren’t in it for keeps, the punk edge of the band has a way of coming out. Their new album “Forever” is a shining example of the group’s versatility. From the great, eye-catching album cover of the upside down railroad tracks to burning songs like “Cigarettes in the Rain” and the sing-along favorite “Sixteen Years” it’s clear Vandoliers are prepared to turn some heads.


Austin Lucas

Austin Lucas

Austin Lucas is another story, his punk background paved the way for hard times. The tattooed singer/songwriter has came out the other side though. Newly sober and freshly trimmed down he is a much healthier version of himself these days. On his 7th album “Immortal Americans” he enlisted American music folk hero Will Johnson to help him craft a stripped down, personal group of songs to take on the road. His twangy delivery will serve as the perfect primer for headlining band.


WHERE IS IT?  Knucklehead’s Saloon (2719 Rochester Street, Kansas City, MO)

WHEN IS IT?  Saturday, March 9th 2019; 8:00 PM, $10

Here is a link to buy your tickets right NOW.


  • Tickets are $10… you’ll spend more than that on beer
  • Vandoliers are young and hungry and put on a good show
  • Austin Lucas is a chiseled alt-country veteran at this point
  • Vandoliers light up the stage with a six person band overflowing with energy
  • Ausin Lucas leads the way to the show with his honest storytelling
  • A cheap ticket and two hungry artists are sure to be a good time
  • In a crazy twist, the excellent Amy Levere & Will Sexton will be next door in the Gospel Lounge so you can double dip shows

You should RSVP on facebook to the event so you don’t forget, here is the link: FACEBOOK EVENT PAGE

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Vocals On Top’s Top 10 Albums of 2018

I’ve never understood why year end lists are made before the end of the year, I need every last day to soak in music and hear as much as I possibly can to make my top 10. 2018 saw my ears finding more new music than ever before, reviewing at least one new album every week of the year and listening to way more than that. It was also a good year for music, looking back, 2018 was stronger than 2017 overall. Enough rambling, here is the list as always; starting with #1 instead of #10 like most lists.

1. The Matchsellers – Bluegrastronauts

The Matchsellers - Bluegrastronauts


The Matchsellers went interstellar and created an out-of-nowhere album of the year with a perfect mix of humor and gloom. The outrageous concept album holds together telling a vague story of unhappy endings and perfect moments. The anthemic “Pigeon and a Dove” is easily one of the best songs of the year and in a perfect world would have been a mega hit with its huge hooks and clever wit. There’s sincerity here(“Dancing In The Kitchen”) right beside downright goofiness(“Shannon Lives In Arkansas”) and it all simply works.

Key Track: “Pigeon and a Dove”


2. Marie/Lepanto – Tenkiller

Marie/Lepanto - Tenkiller


The all-star team of Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster and Will Johnson in retrospect makes so much sense that it is hard to see how this didn’t happen. Their voices and songwriting are completely complimentary of one-another. From the rocking “Inverness” to the drawn out “Tenkiller” this album holds together really well and has just proven stronger with repeated listens.

Key Track: “Features/Fights”


3. Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel

Courtney Barnett - Tell Me How You Really Feel

With her 2018 release “Tell Me How You Really Feel” Courtney Barnett cemented her place in rock lore. While her lack of commercial appeal may not make her hugely popular like she might have been if she were born in a different time, she is here to stay. Her output so far indicates she will continue to put out great music for the foreseeable future, let’s hope that indication is true. This slacker rock masterpiece treads on a lot of previously covered ground for her but overall this is likely her best group of songs yet.

Key Track: “Need A Little Time”


4. Bob Dylan – More Blood, More Tracks: Bootleg Series Vol. 14

Bob Dylan - The Bootleg Series Vol. 14: More Blood, More Tracks

It’s almost unfair to put any chapter of Dylan’s Bootleg Series in my list but damn it are they good. If this wasn’t previously released songs it would’ve been not only #1 on this list but I would’ve just given it the other 9 spots too. These versions are more personal and intimate than the original 70s versions most people know. It makes them feel closer to the listener because of this. On “Idiot Wind” you can hear the anguish at times and let’s face it, there is nothing better than a brutally honest song and it’s not a common thing with Dylan so cherish this, it’s phenomenal.

Key Track: “Idiot Wind”


5. Tyler Childers – Live on Red Barn Radio I & II

Tyler Childers - Live on Red Barn Radio I & II

Tyler Childers is on the cutting edge of real country music or outlaw country or red dirt or whatever you want to call it. No matter how you view it, it is brilliant songwriting and this recording from a few years ago but released in 2018 is a stripped down and authentic version of Childers(far better than his latest studio album) and you can listen to him turn and twist words together like on the personal “Rock Salt and Nails” and the powerful “Deadman’s Curve” and be reminded of why Jason Isbell is so revered at this point in his career.

Key Track: “Rock Salt and Nails”


6. Colter Wall – Songs of the Plains

Colter Wall - Songs of the Plains

You might not think about Canada when you think of country music but Wall’s tales from north of the border are simply entrancing. The songs redefine what real country music is. His pleasing baritone soothes and taunts at the same time as he whittles his stories in such a way you just can’t ignore them. This album is so strangely unique that you simply can’t help but be interested in it.

Key Track: “John Beyers (Camaro Song)”


7. Ike Reilly – Crooked Love

Ike Reilly - Crooked Love

Ike Reilly oozes swagger. On his latest album he delves into the blues and creates an upbeat collection of his typically finely written songs fitting for both air guitar and dancing. The political “Boltcutter Again” makes a statement and “Missile Site” is an old school Reilly hip-hop inspired romp about one of those sterling nights. This album just further emphasizes Reilly’s status as one of the most underrated songwriters alive today. This album deserved a far larger audience.

Key Track: “Clean Blood Blues”


8. Say Hi – Caterpillar Centipede 

Say Hi - Caterpillar Centipede

Maybe the best news of 2018 was Say Hi veering away from their electronic direction and putting out an album inspired by 70s rock guitar riffs. Songs like “Green With Envy” still share the great songwriting and sentiment the band has always had and on “Every Gauge is on Empty” and “I Just Wanna Go Home” they flat-out rock-out. This is possibly the best power pop that was released this year.

Key Track: “Green With Envy”


9. Under The Big Oak Tree – The Ark

Under The Big Oak Tree - The Ark

Midwest darlings Under The Big Oak Tree use their superior musicianship to put together a delicate mix of light and dark to show the duality of the world. There are happy moments like on the playful “O Marry Me Not” and there are more concerning times represented like on “Eleanor.” The final song “The Ark” works as a microcosm of the record and embracing both ends of the spectrum.

Key Track: “O Marry Me Not”


10. Melanie Brulée – Fires, Floods & Things We Leave Behind

Melanie Brulee - Fires, Floods & Things We Left Behind

More Canadian country in a very different manner. Brulee exercises traditional country but also delves into the guilty pleasures of pop like on the power pop gem “I’ll Get Over You.” There are porcelain moments on this group of songs like with the 90s country nod “Whiskey & Whine” and a little bit of raunch country on “Bust It Up & Fix It.” The great mix of the spectrum of country here makes this one of the more surprising albums of the year.

Key Track: “I’ll Get Over You”


Every Year a few albums just barely miss the cut. This year those albums for Vocals On Top were Lucero – Among The Ghosts, The Decemberists – I’ll Be Your Girl, Middle Western – When Your Demons Are Underground, You’ve Got To Dig Them Up, Smoking Popes – Into The Agony, Bottle Rockets – Bit Logic, Murder By Death – The Other Shore, The Center State – Wilderness and Scruffy & The Janitors – Modeling Is Hard.

Here are my past lists:

My list from 2010, headed up by Jason Collett’s Rat-A-Tat-Tat

My list from 2011, headed up by Tom Waits’ Bad As Me

The 2012 list belonged to The Divine Fits – A Thing Called Divine Fits 

The 2013 the top of the mountain belonged to Queens of the Stone Age – …Like Clockwork

The 2014 list belonged to Lucinda Williams – Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone

The 2015 list was spearheaded by Courtney Barnett’s – Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit.

2016 was then ruled by Wilco and their brilliant Schmilco album

In 2017 Craig Finn‘s brilliant songwriting propelled him to the top of the list with “We All Want The Same Things.”

Thank you – Clint at VocalsOnTop (vocalsontop at gmail.com)

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250 word album review: Colter Wall – Songs of the Plains

Colter Wall - Songs of the Plains


Colter Wall’s pleasing baritone is so soothing and rich it almost feels like an act. This album is filled with vintage cowboy songs from america’s neighbor to the north and the entire album relies heavily on Wall’s vocals alone, finding itself in many acapella moments.

Even though you may question how real these songs are, they pass the ear test; they seem honest and true and the stories are entrancing. The obvious comparison is Mr. Johnny Cash vocally and it isn’t that far off. The subject matter is a little more based in the middle of nowhere geographically but that comparison rings true. On the opener “Plain To See Plainsman” you get ushered into Wall’s world right away and will be captivated to stay until the end of the album to see what he has to say. “Saskatchewan In 1881” is, like all these songs, in such tight character that it is almost hard to believe. This album plays like a well written movie of collected short stories of the pastures on Canada. On the acapella “Wild Dogs” Wall’s voice vibrates to the point of almost being chilling while on “John Beyers (Camaro Song)” you’ll be left dying to see or hear what happens next. He gives just enough information to allow the listener to paint the picture but what happens off screen is up to us.

This powerful true folk western album is fiercely unique. It’s hard to categorize and recon with so it’s probably best if you just sit back and listen. Whether this music is in your wheelhouse or not you really need to hear this album.

Key Tracks: “Plain To See Plainsman” “Saskatchewan In 1881” “John Beyers (Camaro Song”

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Album at a glance: Toward Space – Gently With A Chainsaw



Toward Space is a loose and erratic band that specializes in bluesy romps that stay energetic and unpredictable. The playful sound of this bare bones rock band is closest to punk but you can clearly her the blues backbone on many songs.

Vocalists Seyla Hossaini and David Patton split duties throughout the album creating more of a divide in the songs, this probably prevents any hint of monotony. With the emotional delivery and lively band performances it is far from boring though. It is reminiscent of the Jay Retard singles years as the band plugs and plays on songs like “NERVE” where the erratic music barely stays in check. On the brilliantly titled “Nosferattitude” the band really lets loose with some fuzz rock jams. On the slightly down tempo “Neon Signs” Hossaini delivers some ghostly vocals as the band speed shifts through the song at times locking in to some good grooves.

“Gently With A Chainsaw” is aptly titled as there is little gentle about this, it should be filed more closely under aggression and tension. If you’re looking for some erratic underground punk or garage rock, look no further.

Key Tracks: “Neon Signs” “NERVE”

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250 word album review: Reverend Horton Heat – Whole New Life




Reverend Horton Heat has always been about revivals and new beginnings and obviously by the title of their new record (“Whole New Life”) not much is changing.

When you dive into the music you’ll find that assumption to be precisely true. The song “Whole New Life” kicks off the record and is a barn burner. The blasting rockabilly number immediately catapults itself into the bands best five songs of all time, a tall task considering this is the groups 12th effort. While the rest of the record can’t hold to that standard, it still is very good. “Hog Tied Woman” is a good rocker that is vintage Heat and “Hate To See You Cry” is a typically good slower change of pace for the album. Not everything is business as usual here though, a permanent piano player is installed here and really helps add to the rockabilly rumble on many songs and there is even a piano solo on the lead single “Whole New Life.” Other high points are the elated “Got It In My Pocket” where the Rev is excited to pop the question and “Don’t Let Go of Me” which clocks in as the slowest song on the record but is still a slow burning winner. The album ends on a cover of the tiredest variety, the world didn’t really need another version of “Viva Las Vegas” but you get one here, it isn’t particularly bad but it is likely the most unoriginal cover imaginable.

The band really cashes in here and shows they are as good as they ever have been, their career has a couple lowlights but this will definitely not go down as one of them.

Key Tracks: “Whole New Life” “Got It In My Pocket” “Don’t Let Go of Me”

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Coming Soon: William Elliott Whitmore with Raye Zaragoza at Record Bar in Kansas City 12/13/18

WHO’S PLAYING?  William Elliott Whitmore (Lee County, Iowa) Raye Zaragoza (New York City)


William Elliott Whitmore


WHAT TO EXPECT? Roots to the core; honesty, compassion and two acoustic songwriters fighting for what they believe.

Everyone knows William Elliott Whitmore hails from Lee County, Iowa. In Lee County they care about the dirt, pride, moonshine and respect among other things. Whitmore pushes all of these agendas in his songs, not because he’s trying to change anybody’s mind, it’s simply because he sings about what he cares about. His career has been filled with albums about his farm and his life mostly stripped down to acoustic guitar or banjo accompaniment only. His latest release (and first for killer record label Bloodshot) is a collection of cover songs that have influenced Whitmore. Among the artists covered are Johnny Cash, Bill Withers and even punk legends Bad Religion. He’ll likely be mixing in a few covers from that effort along with his massive catalog of his own songs.

William Elliott Whitmore sounds like: Howlin’ Wolf, Waylon Jennings and the music you hear about your fifth pull from the jug.

When it comes to Raye Zaragoza you’ll encounter a great compliment to Whitmore in some ways and the opposite in others. Whitmore prides himself on his gruff sound while Zaragoza’s songs are really beautifully constructed and gentle on the ears. Don’t think it’s all fluff though, she has powerful messages hidden behind her siren voice. As a quiet, acoustic performer

Raye Zaragoza sounds like: Hurray For the Riff Raff, Paul Simon and dropping the needle on a record with a glass of wine.


Raye Zaragoza

WHERE IS IT?  The Record Bar (1520 Grand Blvd, Kansas City, MO)

WHEN IS IT?  Tuesday, December 13th, 2018 7:00 PM doors, $15, 18+

Here is a link to buy your tickets right NOW.


  • Tickets are $15… yeah, just $15
  • Whitmore always puts on an intense show
  • You’ll feel like part of something if you go, it’s an event, not just a concert
  • Raye Zaragoza is a sweet voiced siren with a steel trap idealistic heart
  • Both Whitmore and Zaragoza have records they will be selling
  • The Record Bar is a pretty pimpin’ place in it’s new location
  • The Record Bar has some nice beer waiting for you, they also serve food
  • Whitmore is libel to pull out almost any song from his catalog
  • Both artists will have some cool shirts to pick up too, be the first on your block to own one.

You should RSVP on facebook to the event so you don’t forget, here is the link: FACEBOOK EVENT PAGE

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250 word album review: Rhett Miller – The Messenger

Rhett Miller - The Messenger


Rhett Miller wanders from his band the Old 97’s occasionally to record some solo records, “The Messenger” is his fifth to be exact. Many frontmen have solo careers that are essentially stripped down and quieter versions of their band, for the most part this isn’t the case for Miller.

While Miller’s solo material doesn’t sonically match his rowdy Texas band’s output sonically, it’s also quite different musically. The arrangements and structures are noticeably different, the Old 97’s have a distinct sound and this is because they follow certain templates. Rhett Miller colors outside those lines on his solo albums and it’s very evident here on songs like “Did I Lose You At I Love You” where there is almost a 60s soul feel. On the opening track “Total Disaster” and later on “I Used To Write In Notebooks” the thumping bass lines are obviously outside o the regular as well. The smooth delivery makes these songs distinct, the experimentation he uses on songs makes them feel less cohesive than his band’s efforts too though. Miller specializes in cross-eyed love songs like “If You Were A Stranger” and “The Human Condition” where he spins a love song on it’s head and finds a weirdly unique perspective to narrate from. His crowning achievement here might well be “Close Most of the Time” where he tells the history of his love life, giving a more personal peek at him than you normally hear.

Overall the album is like most Miller solo records, refreshingly different but a bit of a scattershot of love(ish) songs.

Key Tracks: “Close Most of the Time” “Total Disaster”

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Album at a glance: Reliant Tom – Bad Orange



Reliant Tom’s electronica fueled “Bad Orange” concentrates on grooves and vocal prowess. With a vocalist that sounds like Shirley Manson drowning in “Kid A” inspired instrumentals that album is definitely unique.

On the opening song “Bad Orange” the duo kicks into an artistic funk groove that bears the weight of the album as it works as a perfect microcosm of what follows. On “Happy Birthday” some PJ Harvey-esque singing once again is backed by ambient keyboards and digital drum sounds that almost sound mathematical. The moody “Divergent” slows things down and lets your mind wander and has less of a push and pull quality that many songs here possess. If you are a fan of keyboards and how songs can be formed around them this could be a great album for you, the songs just seem buried beneath that.

Key Tracks: “Bad Orange”

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250 word album review: GospelbeacH – Another Winter Alive

GospelbeacH - Another Winter Alive


GospelbeacH has really tapped into the Laural Canyon vibes for their album “Another Winter Alive.” The folky psyche-pop approach fits right in line with bands like the Fleet Foxes where bands created soundscapes and concentrated on the mood of a song.

The record is cleanly produced and filled with good melody, for the studio side at least. The album is split between studio takes and live cuts right down the middle. The peak is on the studio tracks, at times you’ll think of alt-country leanings like The Jayhawks on songs like “Down South” and other times they harken back to 70s FM rock. It’s hard not to feel the 70s influence of bands like Badfinger and Nick Lowe when you’re listening to the ultimate roadtrip song “Runnin’ Blind” where the band spits lyrics like Tom Petty. The build to the chorus of “Dreamin'” is well constructed and the song really typifies the mood of this record. Sonically the live side of the record is a bit jarring like on “California Steamer” and the band really sounds like a Velvet Undergound disciple on “Out of My Mind.”

The live side stands as it’s own animal, not bad but very different from the flip side. When thought of as two different pieces of work it is easier to take in and they can become complimentary of one another but are never quite in sync.

Key Tracks: “Runnin’ Blind” “Down South”


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