These Kansas City bands are our favorites from the NPR Tiny Desk Contest
Thousands of artists entered the 2022 NPR Tiny Desk Contest. Here are some of our local favorites.
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NPR’s beloved Tiny Desk Concert series has been bringing musicians to the smallest stage since 2008, even expanding into artists’ homes to broadcast during the pandemic. Remember when 2 Chainz casually performed in a nail salon?
In 2015, NPR launched the Tiny Desk Contest, in which thousands of unsigned musicians get their work reviewed by an esteemed panel of judges. The winner gets to perform their own Tiny Desk and tour the country with NPR Music.
Among the thousands of musicians who entered the contest were several artists and bands from around the Kansas City area. Here are some of our favs. (For the full list, peep the Tiny Desk entries page to search by state, and keep your eyes peeled for local shows.)
The label “party band” doesn’t fully do justice to genre-defiers The Phantastics, though they’ve played the house down all over Kansas City.
Like any proper funk band, the eight-piece collective has an otherworldly origin story involving Earth, Wind & Fire, Donna Summers, Parliament-Funkadelic and (who else?) Primus. Somewhere Big Boi is probably calling The Phantastics “cooler than a polar bear’s toenails.”
There’s a calm intensity in the handling of each instrument, even as the band as a whole runs on lively, carefree energy. Their contest entry, “Bananas,” is thoughtful as much as it is dynamic, as vocalists Kemet the Phantom and Leigh Gibbs demanding listeners “go bananas” to the song. Done and done.
Representing Kansas City, Kansas, and the always-superb Manor Records, True Lions takes after minimalist indie pop group The Softies. And maybe Phoebe Bridgers.
The band’s sound evokes images of melting creamsicles, crystal pools and the 1990s. Just throw a little feminist punk in the mix. Songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Alison Hawkins is here to challenge the binary, playing at once with soft and hard edges. We’re here for it.
Based on a poem by a friend of the band, True Lions’ contest entry, “Crowded Vacant,” keeps to themes of loneliness and friendship, though other subject matter includes the search for equity in the music industry.
It seems like Jass can do it all. Even if you’ve never heard her live or listened to a song other than “Teenage Dreams,” her contest entry, it’s clear Jass emanates elegant confidence and has the talent (and stellar vocals) to back it up.
In the video for “Teenage Dreams,” Jass perches next to a red desk and amplifier, bass guitar in hand. Jass grew up playing keyboard, flute, sax and viola, and though you would never know it, she only taught herself to play bass during quarantine.
With a chill, expressive sound that gives nods to Solange and Ms. Lauryn Hill, Jass really shines when it comes to vocal control and clever lyricism. “Gangsta lean while I’m Mona Lisa grinnin’,” she sings over a bass riff.
Glass Bandit’s contest entry “Distance” gives meaning to the word “earworm.” It’s a tall order, we know, but the band’s sunshine-tinged pop-funk lives up to the hype. Even in contrast with lyrics that ask the speaker’s partner or friend to “justify the distance” between them.
But don’t let catchy melodies fool you: Glass Bandit does not lack depth by any means. These are eight musicians who thrive on their own microcosm of collaborative energy. You can tell they want their audience to have as good a time as they do.
Catch new music from Glass Bandit on the EP “Vacancy,” plus see them live at The Ship on May 26 and Boulevardia on June 18.
The time of Redder Moon is now, especially since we’re coming off the all-or-nothing vibes of a recent lunar eclipse. The band has several albums out already, including an LP called “Hell is Other People,” which features their contest entry “Dominoes in Slow Motion.”
The rather ambiguous phrase comes from a play by French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. Rather than take it as advice to stay solitary, the point is that we judge ourselves based on the judgment of others. Which makes sense considering the members of Redder Moon created the album mid-pandemic, while separated from one another.
“No one’s careful,” warns lyricist Jill McKeever. “We’re like dominoes in slow motion.” The band’s distinct brand of synthy dark-pop serves as a reminder to accept cosmic serenity — or chaos. And the beats are heavy here.
There’s something so pleasingly familiar about Nicole Springer’s lush blend of folk, Americana and soul. Emphasis on the soul. “Just loosen your grip on the past,” she tells herself, and us. “It’s nowhere near you.”
But the past has a knack for subtle returns. In the same vein as Lake Street Dive and Brandi Carlile, Springer’s contest entry “Good Time” is a masterclass in transforming nostalgia into a sharpened feeling. Not that she needs the comparisons.
The result is a delicately layered — if powerful — sound that builds and builds. Hear it for yourself as Springer plays a live release show of her new EP “Chase the Light” on May 21 at Lemonade Park. See you there.
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