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Reflecting on eight of 2013's best local releases

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Cowboy Indian Bear
Live Old, Die Young

Cowboy Indian Bear's Live Old, Die Young is less an album than a beautifully structured, classic tome — something that indie bands years from now will select from a massive shelf of music history, open with curiosity and then weep over with newfound knowledge. Live unfolds slowly with the grandiose waltz of "Washing," which bleeds an orchestra of feeling. And plenty of surprises are sewn in: "Does Anybody See You Out?" is a dreamy slice of electro-pop, driven by synths and weighed down by lead singer C.J. Calhoun's sullen vocals. On the seductive "I Want a Stranger's Heart," backup vocalist Katlyn Conroy's devastating, powerful voice is somewhat obscured by static, casting long, lonely shadows on the rest of the album. At times, Live feels impossibly heavy, though Cowboy Indian Bear seems to celebrate that.
— Natalie Gallagher

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Betse Ellis
High Moon Order

Between her spirited fiddle playing and rustic, mountain-girl vocals, Betse Ellis stands as a charming captain for Kansas City folk. Though High Moon Order features a couple of old-timey covers — "When Sorrows Encompass Me 'Round" is especially haunting — it's more than a tribute to Ozark music. The appeal lies not in the familiar sounds but in the unexpected ones. Ellis deftly weaves a musical narrative from a blend of fiddle, guitar, viola, cello and piano arrangements, over which she airs out her dusty voice. On "Twilight Is Stealing," Ellis is gentle, singing what might be taken as a lullaby; on "The Complainer," she injects a raucous hillbilly flavor and lets her talents fly wild. With its subtle diversity, High Moon Order is an easy folk treasure.
— N.G.

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Stik Figa
The City Under the City

There's something diabolically sharp about Topeka rapper Stik Figa's latest full-length, The City Under the City. For this 15-track monster, Stik collaborated with North Carolina producer L'Orange, and they created a sound that mashes up jazzy, horn-heavy instrumentals with vintage samples taken from 1930s-era movies and programs. The result is dynamic and revelatory, with Stik patrolling his rhythmic raps like a tiger stalking prey. The thoughtful lyricist doesn't disappoint on City. On "Monochrome," Stik delivers a showstopping thesis statement, setting the scene for his underground city and the realities he faces there. He continues this on "Blind Tiger," emphasizing socioeconomic issues with wit and impactful delivery. With The City Under the City, Stik establishes himself as a true architect — the kind of artist with new discoveries for listeners on every click of the "repeat" button.
— N.G.

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Bloodbirds
Psychic Surgery

The highlight of Bloodbirds' busy year has to be the digital and vinyl self-release in April of Psychic Surgery. Guitarist Mike Tuley, drummer Brooke Tuley and bassist Anna St. Louis coalesce as a unified force on the full-length. Psychic Surgery is a sonic escape, mixing psychedelic and sludgy sounds. The trio's 11-song LP comes at you from a place seemingly imagined by someone under a violent form of hypnosis. There are moments of respite in the brief and melodic "Patterned Sky" and the lighthearted, pop-driven "Rings." Amid the structured chaos, there is an undeniable standard of care — a testament to Mike Tuley's painstaking production.
— Leslie Kinsman

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Josh Berwanger
Strange Stains

Strange Stains, former Anniversary frontman Josh Berwanger's debut solo recording, is pure, unabashed pop. It takes a clever musician to begin a record with lyrics like Why is life so mean, end with Everybody knows that you've been untrue, and make them catchy, happy-sounding gems. It helps that Berwanger has fused his power pop with a country lope on these 10 original cuts (and one excellent cover of the Breakups' "Sweet Little Girl"). It's an album with deceptive simplicity. Each successive listen reveals another flourish — be it a cowbell here or a handclap there — that sets the lyrical hooks deeper into your ears. But especially the handclaps.
— Nick Spacek

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Lazy
Obsession

Something raw and weird about Obsession demands repetition. These nine punk nuggets, nestled between odd samples, cut hard and deep enough to make listening to them their own obsession. The production rewards the lonely audiophile with jagged guitar, bass thump and eerie samples. But the songs themselves are of a party-mixtape pedigree, danceable enough for claustrophobic living rooms and caustic enough to warrant renter's insurance. Go ahead, stomp along with "Grave" or revel in the pandemonium of "Silence in Crisis." Compare it with U.K. post-punk if you like, but find proof of Obsession's singular aesthetic in the album's last track, "Psychic Jelly," an avant-punk throwaway that sucker-punches you with the line White buffalo ... innuendo. Its spunk outweighs its length, and we leave Obsession wanting to flip the record and start over again.
— Nathan Clay Barbarick

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The ACBs
Little Leaves

Little Leaves, the March-released indie-pop album by local favorites the ACBs, reminds us that sensitivity is still a good attribute in songwriting. The heartbreaking "Under Weight" communicates the isolated feeling of wanting someone you can't have, while the fun "Ocean" has a quality — dare we say it? — ready for mainstream radio. Though lead singer Konnor Ervin may sound like his pants are a little too tight, he captains the eccentricities of his voice with confidence. The upbeat "Xanies" informs listeners that young lads with really high voices can be on drugs, too, while simultaneously hinting that a darker sensibility lies beneath this candy-coated layer of indie-rock packaging. On the whole, Little Leaves is an album that makes its listeners sad in an optimistic way: Love may be around the corner, after all — once the loneliness subsides and the xanies kick in.
— Phil Diamond

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Your Friend
Jekyll/Hyde

Sometimes this Lawrence act's name is noted as Your Friend, sometimes Y[our] Fri[end]. Yet with or without the brackets, Taryn Miller's August 2013 release, Jekyll/Hyde, earns high marks for its dreamy atmospherics and simple, mellow beauty. Particularly strong is "Tame One," in which Miller's voice, with the assistance of a touch of tasteful distortion, floats above muted percussion, shimmering guitars and some surprising sonic flourishes. Her vocal delivery on the album ranges from a shadowy whisper to a full-throated yowl — perfect for songs that address longing and looking back. Fans of acts such as Beach House, Bon Iver and Youth Lagoon will adore this short-but-sweet release.
— April Fleming

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