I know that MidWest Kings haven't been an active entity for a few years now and won't likely be returning any time soon. Former Kinger, Dave Cook is still continuing on successfully with Andy Skib by his side while Neal Tiemann is exploring his hard rock learnings and continuing to enjoy the road.
Nevertheless, you can't deny the MidWest Kings made a lasting impression on the local music landscape and there are still plenty of MWK fans waiting in the wings. What you may not realize is that although Neal and Andy are off in Los Angeles, they haven't laid MWK completely to rest and they haven't been idle during the down time while Cook was preparing his latest CD.
You may not see them on the shelves at Best Buy, Target or Starship (Oh, how I miss the days of real record stores -- but that's another topic), but the guys did release enough in 2011 to keep MWK fans happy for a little while longer and hold out hope for even more in the future. New releases by MWK, To Have Heroes and Hell or Highwater each have something different to offer, but serve to reassure us the Tiemann and Skib are still busy on the creative front and have plenty more to offer in the future.
Unfortunately, the fact that all were predominantly digital releases means they could slide by unnoticed. Once you find them and dig in, however, you realize we've got some hidden treasures out there that deserve some attention and shouldn't be overlooked. Year's end is a great time to look back with some perspective, however, and provides a great opportunity to make sure these aren't missed.
Righting the Ship
First and foremost is the latest MWK EP, Luna Espera, which was released digitally on Nov. 8. If you must go preview it on Spotify, but if you're a fan at all, you might as well just drop the $5 and download it directly from iTunes. Weighing in at only five songs, the only fault here is that once again, it's an EP instead of a full length release.
It's hard to call this a return to form for MWK as the 2008 release, Luna Despierta, wasn't bad by any means. That disc saw the band a darker tone than we had previously seen and could initially be a hard listen that opened up with time. Lyrically, Luna Espera plays out as side two of its predecessor, but a more upbeat sound and tone makes it grab you more immediately.
"The Captain, His Ship" jumps from the outset and makes the statement that MWK is far from over. Tiemann and Skib are in great form here and Tiemann's grasp of big hooks is on display, front and center. "With Me Empty" continues in step, balancing maudlin and inspiration, as Tiemann so frequently does. "With me, know you're not alone tonight..."
Don't be mistaken, these aren't the pop sentiments that carried the Incoherent with Desire to Move On EP. Tiemann and Skib have grown as writers and although this is merely five tracks, they play together as a whole instead of as five separate singles as the 2006 release did.
Melancholy and heartbreak are still hovering with this release, but it without the heaviness that made Despierta so dark. The magic here is in playing the two EPs back to back and seeing the guys make a turn, take control and walk out of the darkness. To that end, "The Captain, His Ship" is central to the disc, carrying that theme forward.
Although a November release brought this disc in the latter part of the year, it has emerged as one of my favorite releases of the year for a number of reasons. As a long time fan, I was grateful simply for a new release, but it extends beyond that. Tiemann and Skib have grown incredibly over the years since starting MWK and this EP is testament to that. Although it is one of Skib's best vocal performances to date, this collection of songs shines in the fact that not only did it grab me immediately, but the songs continue to open up with repeated listens, finding a balance between the immediacy of Judging a Bullet and Incoherent and the depth and reflectiveness of Luna Despierta. More promising, however, is the notion that although MWK may be put away and out of sight for the time being, there is still more to look forward to.
Hero in Waiting
As the front man of MWK, Skib grabbed us with a unique voice and became one of Tulsa's most recognizable and popular rock vocalists, standing aside people like Ben Kilgore. Before Cook's solo deal came into place, Skib was already working on solo material that emerged in 2008 as To Have Heroes. The initial, self titled EP was a sigh of relief for those who missed his voice front and center and included a reworking of MWK's "Fairweather Friend" and "LA Girl", which fit next to his work with the short-lived project, The Pearls. Co-writes with the likes of Jason Mraz on "Story of Your Life" gave signal that he was gaining the attention of others, however, and more would be forthcoming.
It came as no surprise (with the exception of the fact that it was release with no warning or announcement) when a new five song EP, Lost in America, was released on May 11, 2011. Nearly three years later, Skib picks up where his debut left off without missing a beat.
Sonically, Skib is in his comfort zone here with mid-tempo ballad-rockers. The four new tracks (a fifth, "Forever," is listed as a bonus track on iTunes, but is a holdover from the debut) make for a tight package, with "The Beggar" gaining the most attention for its big chorus and vocal hook.
I'd argue that the real treasure ere, however, is actually "I Bet You're Beautiful." Building off of an acoustic base, the band arrangement kicks in for the chorus, but Skib's voice and some great melodies carry this number with an undeniable swagger.
This is Skib at his best and what makes him so engaging on his own, when you get the rare occasion to catch his solo gig.
Again, the only disappointment is the compact length, but this is a smart package. Skib jumps in, hits his core audience and leaves us wanting more. That next step followed with the November release of the aforementioned MWK EP. I'll look forward to more from Skib's solo project, however, especially when he continues to explore the acoustic tunes that let his voice stand out front and center.
Fighting the Good Fight
Perhaps the left turn of the bunch is Born Again, the debut release by Neal Tiemann's new project, Hell or Highwater. For those only familiar with MWK's Cook ties and more pop-oriented material, this will be a bit of a surprise. Those who know Tiemann, however, know it was only a matter of time before he found a project like this to exercise his hard rock chops.
For Hell of Highwater, Tiemann has found a new partner in crime with Brandon Saller, former drummer and vocalist for Atreyu. Here, Saller sheds the kit and takes front and center as captain of the ship. Don't be mistaken, however: it only takes one quick listen to know that Tiemann's fingerprints are all over this.
Although his pop sensibilities and knack for big hooks was always central to MWK, Tiemann has always had a love of hard rock floating just at the surface. Pairing with Saller is a win for both parties: Tiemann gets to explore his hard rock leanings and Saller has a songwriting partner that can rock, but also bring a commercial sensibility to the proceedings that make the band and songs more acceptable to the mainstream.
"Hail Mary!" is the first official single from the disc and balances a hard edge with a guitar hook and big chorus that aims straight for Active Rock radio. Personally, I'd pick "When the Morning Comes" as the track that could break the band on the airwaves. By mixing and almost southern rock guitar riff with a soaring chorus, stations like KMOD-FM 97.5 should jump all over this track, leaving the door open for tracks like "Crash and Burn," "Come Alive" and "Gimme Love" to grab the testosterone crowd with adrenaline fueled guitar rock.
Although the band has been playing predominantly club gigs (along with a fall run as one of the opening acts on a Rockstar Uproar Tour with Avenged Sevenfold, Three Days Grace and Bullet For My Valentine), its sound is built for arenas. This is muscular guitar rock for the mainstream masses and proper positioning with a couple of the right tours will likely lock the band into that circuit.
Hell of Highwater has actually played a couple of small gigs in Tulsa, with the last being a club gig at Downtown Lounge back on Aug. 19. The band was originally signed up as part of the Me Talk Pretty/Medina Lake tour that stopped at The Marquee on Dec. 14, but outside circumstances required the band to drop off of that tour. Rumors have Hell of Highwater returning in early 2012, however, likely in February, so keep your eyes and ears open for a date.
Perhaps the most surprising part of Hell or Highwater isn't that Tiemann is finally getting a chance to rock with abandon, but that this is now his primary gig. None of us expected either Tiemann or Skib to stay with Cook forever, but I figured at least one more tour would be at hand to let the guys establish themselves before heading out on their own. Tiemann is happy with this gig, however, and finally getting to cut loose on guitar while sharing in the writing process, so I'm eager to see this one do well for him.
Regardless of your taste, be it pop, mid-tempo rock or hard rock, Tiemann and Skib have offered up something for all of their fans. Most tantalizing, however, is the prospect of how MWK will develop with its next release and when we might see another short tour to showcase Luna Espera, which deserves a chance to be heard.
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