Cheating Kay
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Cheating Kay

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The best kept secret in music


"Cheating Kay"

By JJ Duncan

After a 2002 debut that was recorded in a week, Cheating Kay decided to take its time.

"Again, the Distance," Cheating Kay's second full-length CD, was recorded over the course of six months this year at the Airborne Audio studios in Kansas City, Mo. Sarah Mueller, vocals and keyboard, said the band recorded the tracks as they got time to use the Airborne studios, and she enjoyed the luxury it presented.

"The good thing about taking six months to record is that you have time to think about it and see what's working and not working," she said. "But that can be bad, too. It can make easy decisions complicated and you end up doubting yourselves more."

Cheating Kay will make its way back to the Kansas City area tonight for a CD release show at the Pyro Room, followed by a live performance at 8 p.m. Sunday on KRBZ-FM 96.5 The Buzz in Kansas City.

Mueller divides vocal responsibilities with husband and guitarist Thomas Mueller. Both write songs but work independently before bringing a song to the group, Sarah Mueller said. That's why the album's fourth track "Never Know the Words," might stand out.

The two wrote the song together, fleshing out the chord progression, lyrics and melody, while spending a weekend in a cabin with some friends.

"Thomas and I went upstairs actually did write that together," Sarah Mueller said. "We tried to figure out the chord progression and everything. It was pretty collaborative -- moreso than any of the other songs had been."

Sarah Mueller said she, guitarist Curt Cuscino and her husband all have complementary styles that affect how a song ends up sounding. In the case of "Never Knew the Words," her piano line and vocal melody are laid over Thomas Mueller's minor chord progression on an acoustic guitar. Cuscino's light atmospheric reverberating guitar lines complete the effect.

"My chord progressions tend to be pretty intuitive and folksy and he (Thomas) will stick a wrench in that," she said. "It's great because it gives things another layer and more depth."

Sarah Mueller said the band has been focusing recently on the business side of the band, and its most recent material is on the new album. The band just returned from its longest stint on the road and has several upcoming shows.

That's why Sarah Mueller said she's looking forward to a break this winter.

"I'm looking forward to getting snowed in and writing more and getting back to the creative side of the music," she said.

"Cheating Kay (The Pitch)"

Given that Cheating Kay, a relatively recent import from Columbia and hardly the best-known act in the metro area, scored an upset reader's poll victory in the Pitch's Best Of Kansas City issue, skeptics might judge the group guilty of the gerund that opens its name. But there was no cheating involved; this is an underground success story about a group that earned its impressive following at under-the-radar spots such as the New Earth Coffee House and Studio 24. Cheating Kay's best-kept-secret status likely won't last long; in addition to the Best Local Bands accolade ... it's working on a new disc that should push its ethereal coed art-folk to unprecedented levels of irresistibility. Now's the time to catch Cheating Kay on the low-key circuit, before some big label gets wise to the group's commercially viable charms. | originally published: November 6, 2003 - The Pitch, by Andrew Miller

"Cheating Kay Live (Playback STL)"

Before the show, guitarist Curt Cuscino was worried. “Did you see all the bottles on the wall?” he said of Sally T’s, having arrived for load-in. “What if we rock too hard and they all fall down?” In this Kansas City quintet’s case, there is no such thing as rocking too hard—they rocked properly, and that’s just the way it should be. Sandwiched between two acts of lesser talent, they were the evening’s true headliner.

“We’re Cheating Kay from Kansas City,” said Tom Mueller by way of introduction. With his wife, Sarah Magill Mueller, on keyboards and sharing vocal duties, and backed by Cuscino and drummer Mark Lomas, Mueller was a commanding frontman. When he isn’t also playing guitar, he slides it behind his back and focuses on singing, eyes closed, delivering the carefully penned words in his versatile voice. For her part, Sarah is captivatingly comfortable onstage: she stands angled away from her husband, microphone in hand, rocking slightly, occasionally running a hand through her tomboy hair or looking out at the crowd through her bangs.

The chemistry of Tom and Sarah plays well into Cheating Kay’s stage appeal: the sly glances they give one another, the knowing smiles, the way they’re always in synch. Cuscino’s a mobile guitarist, especially given the relatively small size of the stage at Sally T’s, at turns playing to Lomas, to Mueller, to the audience. Despite his treble of technical problems that night, the set was still quite strong.

Their show alternated between songs from their debut CD, Concept, and newer material. Early in the night they played a simple, stripped down version of “My Lover,” the intro composed of just Sarah’s voice and Tom’s guitar. Though the album itself is strong and translates well to the stage, the new stuff’s amazingly good. Mid-set was the as-yet unrecorded “Somewhere to Run,” an excellent funk/rock song on which Sarah sings lead and Tom backing vocals; Lomas proved his mettle as a drummer on more than one occasion, but especially during this song.

Midway through “Myths and Legends,” Cuscino’s strap broke for the second time and Tom abruptly stopped the song, seeming on the verge of losing patience. “We’re doing that again,” he declared—and they did, this time doing it full justice. We left that night looking forward to the new album, and what 2004 will hold for Cheating Kay. - Laura Hamlett (Editor) - Playback St. Louis Magazine

"Concept Review ("

I guess that when reviewing a band it's hard not to immediately draw comparisons. Fight it as you may you tend to classify a new artist into your personal style categories. Cheating Kay wouldn't allow me to do that.

Cheating Kay's debut album, "Concept", (House of Tears Sound) draws it style from the backgrounds of it's artists - Tom Mueller, Curt Cuscino, Sarah Magill Mueller and Mark Lomas. At times bright and then suddenly dark, the album can best be described with a word pulled from the liners notes - textures.

There are ambient textures, vocal textures, acoustical textures. The blending of these layers produces a sometimes haunting, sometimes melodic album that flows a bit eclectically from the first track until the last.

Tom and Sarah trade vocal work and the balance of the two voices gives each track a new flavor and sound. On the song "Blue" Sarah's vocals seem anything but blue, while the acoustic and electric guitar tracks are layered heavy and even pleasantly muddy. The song ends in a breakdown something akin to a Who concert finale. Wonderful track.

The following track, "Last Day", isn't on the track list but is a beautiful piano ballad and Sarah shines again. She's got a voice and talent that could suit so many styles and I'd love to see what she could do with a whole range of music. On "My Lover" she demonstrates a tonal range and bluesy quality that evokes comparisons to Sarah McLaughlin.

Overall these musicians seem to complement each other gracefully. I'm looking forward to what comes next from this group.

-- John Jorgensen -

"Concept Review ("

By Justin Marciniak
RockKansas guest reviewer

Cheating Kay's debut, Concept, reveals that the band possesses three formidable qualities:

No. 1
Cheating Kay is smarter than the average young, unsigned band — Concept, the title of the (ahem) album is a joke … get it?.

No. 2
Cheating Kay's art is ambitious — Indeed, Sarah Magill Mueller's lyrics to "My Lover" riff on everything from a 1980s Fleetwood Mac single to "Amazing Grace." And,

No. 3
Cheating Kay is wise — The band avoids the gimmicks that get the best of one-hit wonders and keeps the lyrical clichés to a minimum.

On future efforts, though, these qualities could be either Cheating Kay's most promising virtues or peskiest vices.

Right now, the audio manifestations of these three qualities show that this foursome — Sarah Mueller (vocals, keyboard, piano), Tom Mueller (vocals, guitar), Curt Cuscino (guitars, turntable, sequencing), Mark Lomas (drums, percussion) — can be anything it wants to be.

If the foursome wanted, they could be a Portishead with a little more hope, a Radiohead without all the alienation, a David Gray with more excitement. Too, the band could be a Dave Matthews with focused songs and less indulgence, a U2 with less conceit, a Tori Amos with fewer demons.

Concept documents Cheating Kay's experimenting with what sort of band it will be when it matures. The Muellers deliver both stunning and shaky performances of their dark lyrics. Tom Mueller sneers and snarls over the gradual swelling on "They Might Know." On the previous track, "A Little Bit of Adultery," he sounds stuck between Bono-esque, arena-rock howling and violent, guilty anger.

Sarah Mueller's stealthy and low secret weapon of a voice struggles through the mix of "You Can Never Get Out." As layers of guitars join each verse of "Be the One," her voice climbs, dives and flutters like a butterfly in wind.

The band writes solid and simple — but not simplistic — songs. It is evident that the group spends just a little extra time in rehearsals or the studio to perfect a guitar's tone or to build upon the basic tracks.

Three of the members are credited with providing "textures" to the mix, and these textures make the record complex and deserving of more than one listen. With flourishes of distortion, extra beats or climactic shifts, the primarily mid- to down-tempo tracks insist upon interacting with the listener without becoming invasive.

The electric guitar that opens "Sword Sword" resembles the weightless guitar on OK Computer's "The Tourist."

When Cuscino and Tom Mueller's guitars ring and Lomas' snare rolls into a modern march, "My Lover" sounds like Wilco's "Ashes of American Flags."

After "My Lover," electrono-whiz Cuscino plugs in for "Every Morning" and fills your headphones with CB chatter intercepted from semi-truck drivers in space and subtle electronic squeals that sound like cars shifting gears on the highway.

In fact, a considerable amount of gear shifting occurs throughout Concept.

Often, a track starts slow and simple, but before it ends, it surges with all sorts of sounds. Cheating Kay clearly has crafted its songs. Meticulously placed splashes of cymbals, backward guitar, harmony vocals and keyboard string effects provide fragility to the otherwise mantra-like lyrics of "Happy."

But, what if the Muellers sang, "Don't, don't fade away," without that track's extra textures?

The song would probably sound just as good or perhaps even better. Layers of distorted guitars, feedback, dissonant piano and chaotic percussion a la The Beatles' "A Day in the Life" end the tenth and final listed song, "Blue."

Concept then surrenders to a sublime hidden track of Sarah Mueller's voice with piano. Nothing more. The track raises the question: Does Cheating Kay need the fancy textures?

Concept proves that the band can write and produce captivating material using anything: acoustic guitar or samples and electronics; understated yet full vocals or strained, emotive screams.

The album shows the band tasting the fruit and letting the dynamics and textures fully dress the songs so they can strut out of the garden and into the street with the Radioheads and U2s of the world. Perhaps the album also suggests that the band has let its intelligence and ambition encumber the songs with a few too many constrictive layers.

Cheating Kay's greatest challenge now is using its final formidable quality — wisdom — to help the band grow into its own sound without cheating its intelligence, ambition and essence. -

"Concept Review (Playback STL)"

Kansas City’s Cheating Kay is a band born out of a songwriting session. Guitarist/vocalist Tom Mueller and pianist/vocalist Sarah Magill Mueller was an acoustic duo wanting to grow; guitarist Curt Cuscino was double-banding already. Then Mueller and Cuscino sat down to write together, decided to try adding Magill Mueller and a whole new band emerged. (The group rounded out its lineup this spring with the addition of Mark Lomas on drums.)

Cheating Kay has a pleasing sound, alternately dreamy and explosive. Mueller is self-described as "the master of the gradual crescendo," and it shows: the instrumentation throughout Concept is intelligent, experimental, and vibrant. Magill Mueller is the chief lyricist for the band, a thoughtful writer as evidenced by Concept’s 10 tracks.

From the first note of this CD, Cheating Kay sets itself apart from all the other new, young local bands. On the intro track, "You Can Never Get Out", Magill Mueller whisper-sings over the delicate yet purposeful strumming of the guitar. When she begins singing outright, her voice soars, dreamy and soothing. Then the song kicks in, and Magill Mueller’s anguished wailings rise above the drums and background sounds. "Be the One" is another featuring Magill Mueller’s vocal stylings; in a switch, the third track, "Sword Sword", has Mueller on lead vocals and Magill Mueller as backup. Mueller’s vocal range isn’t as great, but his voice is interesting; together, the two complement one another quite well.

Cuscino brings samples, sequencing, and textures to the mix, as evidenced by "Every Morning". Over a slow-tempoed soundscape with gentle guitar, Magill Mueller sings, "All my priests are parading/down dirty, dusty streets/as purple-clad prostitutes/foreign blood-fruit, dripping teeth/every morning, every morning I awake". On "A Little Bit of Adultery", an equally wistful track, Mueller once again assumes lead vocals--and maintains them for the next four songs; Magill Mueller is absent until the very last song on the disc. This is my only complaint with Concept--if you’re going to alternate lead vocals, alternate more often: don’t start us off with a female voice, give a little back and forth, then sink into male and stay there. By the time the last track comes on, we’ve almost forgotten there ever was a female voice.

"A World Without Heroes" is a troublingly beautiful song backed by an anguished-sounding guitar/drum and evoking visions of countryside churches on dirt roads. The last track, "Blue", has fretful guitar strokes and reads like a poem: "I am a shield/over your arm/on your heart/water, river will not overflow/and I/am my beloved’s/and his love is for me/come my beloved/let us go into the blue/get me off the ground/raise me".

Cheating Kay sometimes evokes Radiohead (especially when Mueller is singing), sometimes Jeff Buckley, and oftentimes its own world. - Laura Hamlett (Editor)

- Plackback St. Louis Magazine

"Concept Review (Splendid)"

Columbia, MO's Cheating Kay are a band that, if they turned up the rock factor a hair, could easily be heard blasting from many a boomin' car stereo. Thankfully, they choose to keep things a little more restrained ­- instrumentally, at any rate. Vocal-wise, these guys are all about laying on the drama: c-singers Sarah Magill-Mueller and Tom Mueller have big, booming voices that rely on whisper-to-yell dynamics. At her most forceful, Magill-Mueller reminds me of a slightly less strident Heidi Ore (of Mercy Rule -­ remember them?). Unfortunately, for his part, Mueller verges uncomfortably close to the rock-guy croon (you know, the one that Eddie Vedder patented awhile back) for this reviewer's comfort. Much of the music on Concept is hushed and measured to the extreme -­ so much so that from time to time, you actually wish that they would rock out a little more often, simply for a change of pace. However, despite its shortcomings, Concept is a fairly solid effort from a promising new band. At this point their ideas (concepts?) are better than their execution, but give them time. - Jeremy Schneyer -

"Concept Review (Columbia Daily Tribune)"

With a mosaic of melodies that meander to intensity, songs such as "Sword Sword" from Cheating Kay’s latest album evoke thoughts of summer’s lazy Sunday afternoons, when time creeps with a measured slowness. Led by the beautiful, honest voice of Sarah Mueller and her husband, Tom Mueller, Cheating Kay’s "Concept" shows why this Columbia-born band continues to be a local favorite.

The talented four-member ensemble will perform tomorrow night at Cherry Street Artisan.

"Concept" was released on House of Tears Sound, a growing independent label based in Kansas City. The band features House of Tears alumni guitarist/programmer Curt Cuscino and drummer Mark Lomas and newcomers guitarist/vocalist Tom Mueller and keyboardist/vocalist Sarah Mueller.

Although the band was formed in Columbia, Cusino and Lomas now make Kansas City their home. The Muellers still live in Columbia.

While the band members have whittled out a niche of their own, their sound is reminiscent of 10,000 Maniacs, Sarah McLachlan and Radiohead. If it means anything to readers, they also have an early-’90s, alternative pop/rock sound that resembles The Trash Can Sinatras.

Says the band’s news release: "Cheating Kay combines four very different musicians: one music freak who sings jazz standards in the shower, one Brit-rock fanatic with a folkster’s knack for storytelling, one earthquake-with-a-pulse drummer and one texture-crazy electro-head. The outcome is a quiet rebellion in itself: four musicians developing a sound best described as an emotive romance between burden and hope."

After listening to "Concept," it’s clear this band appreciates the importance of balancing quiet moments with raucous epiphanies.

-- Liz Van Hooser - Columbia Daily Tribune

"Concept Review (MUEN Magazine)"

'Concept' is like 10,000 Maniacs, Lush, Fleetwood Mac, Pulp and a sprinkle of good melancholy jazz. And here is a warning, you may have to downshift into a real relaxed state of being if you've been spoon-fed by corporate radio, or if you prefer the bass over everything else and actually pay a gangster to hear him boast about "nothing that means anything in the real world", but if you can get past that, Cheating Kay is one band that could serve as the "help medicine" you desperately need.

Creating their brew of heavy mellow indie, in Kansas City, MO, Cheating Kay have brought forth an album that bleeds pure songwriting finesse. Sarah Mueller begins the album with "You Can Never Get Out" a slow, but explosive electric number. Things stay fairly mellow with the acoustic "Be The One", an excellent 10,000 Maniacs style song that truly reveals Sarah Mueller's charismatic vocal charm. In "Sword Sword" Tom Mueller steals the vocal spotlight. The way he delivers emotion in this tune could make your eyes swell with tears - it's even more convincing than Robert Smith (The Cure) himself. "My Lover" sang by Sarah, seems to be a favorite with the locals from what I can gather. It's a good slow, repetitive "almost country" love song with great acoustic pickin', smooth harmonies and deep emotion in both lyrics and vocal. Good song, but her best is the last track which isn’t even listed - it’s the "jewel", the "songbird" of the album. This type of behavior only crystallizes the core of what Cheating Kay is all about.... vague speculation - and it’s addictive.

Cheating Kay's foundation is Curt Cuscino (guitarist/programmer) who delivers a stellar performance on background programing, such as in the songs "Every Morning"/"Happy", and drummer Mark Lomas, who's emphasis is right on, and right where it should be (both musicians and House of Tears indie label founders, are also former members of sixty*below and Paragon Null). Tom and Sarah are actually newcomers! Sort of sounds like the Fleetwood Mac story. This album debuted in May 2002 and Vox Magazine voted them "Best Band in Columbia, MO even before the release!

Throughout this album you will hear a vast amount of emotion (such as "A Little Bit Of Adultery" and "They Might Know), clever instrumentation, cool and distant synth effects, keys ("A World Without Heroes"), electric/acoustic guitar perfection ("Blue")... this band knows no wrong... what a "concept"... so do the right thing and get the album before the world knows. You will not be sorry... unless you have bass strings for brains.

(REMEMBER! MUEN predicted the rise of David Gray 5 years before it happened.)

ok I'm done... G. Cataline
- MUEN Magazine

"Concept Review (Action Attack Helicopter)"

Hailing from the current hot bed of indie rock, these Missouri natives create well orchestrated music that doesn’t sound pretentious, a feat difficult to accomplish nowadays and in their latest album, Concept. Lead singer Sarah Mueller haunting vocals are gorgeous. This girl really has mastered the art of displaying emotion in her voice. For example, in "Be the One", she begins quite delicately and with timidity while gaining volume and silent strength to sing powerfully throughout the song. And her voice is far from mediocre, it’s completely flawless and smooth, reminiscent of Holly McNarland but actually good. The male half of the vocals department, Tom Mueller, doesn’t have anything to be ashamed of, though. His voice, especially in "Sword Sword", echoes Sarah Mueller’s same gentleness and melancholy, yet rushes like a stream of pleasant sound. And with all this being said you can strip away the vocals and Cheating Kay would still be fabulous. Soft drum rolls and guitar inspired by the prairies and valleys of our nation can’t stop giving me an inner peace, both working so well with each other. There is not enough to say about Cheating Kay, except that any comparisons to Ida or Rainer Maria would be unjust. Cheating Kay gives a time of unmoving lyrics and repetitive chords a refreshing change by dynamically creating a beautiful team of soulful melodies. - Saira Khan -


Again, the Distance (O Altitudo) (HOTS007) - To be released August 2004
EP (HOTS005) - Released October 2003
Concept (HOTS004) - Released April 2002


Feeling a bit camera shy


Cheating Kay began as an acoustic trio with a penchant for sonic layers and storytelling. The addition of earthquake-with-a-pulse drummer completed the band and drove the production of their 2002 debut, Concept. After the CD’s release, critics salivated at the possibilities the debut album presented: “Get the album before the world knows… Remember! [We] predicted the rise of David Gray five years before it happened…”; “There is not enough to say about Cheating Kay, except that any comparisons to Ida or Rainer Maria would be unjust…”; “Few bands ever get to the point where Cheating Kay is starting from…”; and, simply, “We were blown away.”

The band moved to Kansas City in 2003 and continued to inspire rabid hope in new listeners. They promoted Concept to college radio and received heavy rotation on stations in the United States and overseas. They also completed a short tour to the East Coast to play in a CMJ showcase and returned to find that their fans had voted them the "Best New Band" in Kansas City (after only 10 months there) in what a Pitch Weekly writer called an "upset reader's poll victory … an underground success story about a group that earned its impressive following at under-the-radar spots."

Yes, Cheating Kay has never been about cheap hype that burns through its indie-cred cash quickly. The band has always invested in deep-drawn possibilities, and this fall it is going to make good on its promise.

Cheating Kay has spent the winter and spring putting muscle on the army of new songs that man its upcoming release. The band’s sophomore album is the result of a slow maturation, a ripening of time and ideas. Exuding an onstage attack rivaling today’s emo bands, harnessing post-rock’s strange beauty, and charming with the simple grace of well-spoken singer/songwriters, the band is now preparing for a fall 2004 album release,with the extensive touring and radio promotion that comes with it.

As the same Pitch Weekly writer warned, "Cheating Kay's best-kept-secret status likely won't last long …"