Hearts of Darkness is KC's most adored live act. Here are some reasons. People dance at the band's shows. Girls turn up for the shows. The group plays long, sweaty sets. The female singers are cute and charismatic. It's fun to watch the band's many members ("3,000 lbs, altogether," its Facebook page notes) huddled together, trying not to elbow one another. And the soul and swing of the music feels like a meaningful, modern link to KC's jazz heritage.
Those are difficult ideas to convey on an album. So how does a band like HOD replicate what makes it so special in a room filled with bodies? Is that even possible?
Not really, no, but Shelf Life, its second full-length, is nevertheless a success. I've heard better recordings and tighter albums locally this year but nothing as freewheeling and joyful. Or as diverse — HOD's stew of New Orleans funk, 1970s R&B, big-band jazz, hip-hop and Afrobeat is as ambitious as it is addictive. You will wake up in the morning with these horns stabbing at your frontal lobe.
Some patterns emerge. Vocally, the reins are passed between the women (Erica Townsend, Rachel Christia and Brandy Gordon) and rapper Les Izmore, whose intermittent barking and hometown repping are the only clear indications that Shelf Life is a modern record. The glue is the rhythm section, which builds the bridges allowing HOD to dash between the frenzied Afrobeat swing of "Six Feet" and P-Funk guitar solos, as on "Standing on the Corner."
The brass, all doubled up and stacked — there's at least two of everything in Hearts of Darkness — announces itself in imposing, ramshackle bursts. On "Numeration," the album's finest track, the horns lurch in formally, in unison, then draw back. A sax solo punctuates the song's middle, then Izmore starts in on a number-themed rap (Five applications filled out on the sixth/Seventh day come and I still ain't paid rent). It's fun stuff, and you don't quite realize how deeply your subconscious is craving the return of the horns. Then they arrive, and you wonder how you ever lived without them.
Shelf Life's flaws — shaky-flat vocal harmonies on the otherwise superb title track, some unnecessary Izmore bars, a couple of duds among the nine songs — are minor, though I wonder what this album might have sounded like with a big budget or a slick producer. All in due time, perhaps. Anyway, this is supposed to be a party, right?