A Kansas City Band Turns Everyday Strength Into Music That Lasts

Jan 31, 2017

The Grisly Hand
Hearts & Stars

Since 2009, The Grisly Hand has been a band that’s comfortable in its own skin, equally content and holding its own whether it’s the next band up in a punk rock lineup, showcasing at the Folk Alliance conference, or opening for Lee Ann Womack. It’s not that the band doesn’t fit anywhere: Its musicians keep pushing their own limits, so they fit everywhere.

In November, the band released The Grisly Hand, a double LP combining Hearts & Stars with 2015’s more country-inflected Flesh & Gold, re-ordering the songs (recorded at roughly the same time) to capture their epic narrative sweep. With those nineteen songs, The Grisly Hand proved they could take their music anywhere — as long as they make it over the little bumps in the road.

With the more-focused Hearts & Stars, they’ve managed to combine The Basement Tapes’ creative ethos with a willingness to try out “just one more layer” in songs about the struggle to keep going.

Its opener, “One More Day,” lands somewhere between a pep talk and a manifesto. Shimmering and upbeat, most of the song is a lament about why things can’t go just a little bit better — why the grass is just a little bit greener for everyone else. Vocalist/songwriter Dan Loftus doesn’t seem bitter so much as baffled. But suddenly, the music shifts and singer Lauren Krum, in the voice of a muse, a friend, or perhaps simply a band mate, confidently soothes him: “But I know who you are/And I won’t let you fall.” She cries out for him to “Hold on one more day.”

That call to just hang in there holds the album together.

Krum’s lush voice is the core of the title track, an orchestral, cinematic, Peggy Lee-style ballad about just how good things used to be. When a horn section sweeps in like the Tijuana Brass, the memory’s timelessness somehow makes it even more honest. And on “Oh, Tenderheart,” her voice (and an earnest piano that sounds as if it’s been sitting out in the rain) soars through a ‘60s pop ode to simply making it to the weekend, where maybe — just maybe — things might get better.

Fitzner’s lyrics are always straightforward but never simple, especially the touching “The Picture I Keep,” an organ and horn-driven song about surviving the death of a close friend. When he sings, “You just smiled and hugged me/and went on to live your last weeks,” the line is equal parts comfort and barbed wire.

The most alt-country tune here is “Say Hello,” in which Ben Summers’ exhausted voice (and Krum’s gorgeous harmonies) carry the story of a relationship that never really got started with the single line “We never quite found the right way to say hello.”

Even with smaller songs, such as the rocking “Good Time Charlie” (a slag-off of someone who’s betrayed just about everyone), it’s clear that his obnoxiousness — like the problems and joys in every song here — is what makes life real.

KCUR contributor Mike Warren has written for a variety of local and national music publications, including No Depression. Follow him @MikeWarrenKC.