By now Undertow Records is the grandfather of St. Louis labels. But they certainly didn't rest on their laurels as they neared their tenth year in existence. In fact, the collective gave nationally known indie juggernauts like Merge and Matador a run for their money in 2006, judging from the number of quality albums it releasedamong them For What I Don't Become, a barnstorming twang-attack from Murfreesboro, Tennessee's Glossary; Heavy Rock, haunting bedroom folk from the Artificial Hearts; and New Appreciation for Sunshine, by woozy psychedelic rockers the Cush. Perhaps the most notable Undertow releases (at least in the Lou), though, were stellar new albums from two of the scene's finest bands, Waterloo (Out of the Woods) and Magnolia Summer (From Driveways' Lost View). National or local, it doesn't matterUndertow treats <\#213>em all with respect and integrity.
How could the Sex Robots' self-titled full-length be anything but
fun? Just look at the album art: black-and-white photos of the trio exploding popcorn-kernel style on the cover; a color scheme that's a festive cotton-candy pink, orange and yellow; and the band's logo bursting forth with a cartoonish nod to the Batman
TV show's pow! biff! bang!
graphics. Fittingly, the punk-pop speedballs contained within are equally jauntyseeing how they're inspired by the Replacements' shambling moments, the '50s-goes-punk sounds of Blondie and the concise pop nuggets of U.K. legends the Undertones and Buzzcocks. But the Sex Robots' secret weapon is their ability to craft the kind of hooks that refuse to leave your headwhether it's the sweet refrain of "Take Me Out Dancin'" or the centerpiece of the bitter buzz saw that is "I Won't Say I Heart You Back." For a sampling, visit the band's MySpace page, www.myspace.com/sexrobots
There must be something in the air down there, some sort of compound that frees the imagination. Whatever it is, it allows St. Louis Rep staffers to cut loose and re-explore theater in ways that don't happen on the Mainstage. Right now the Emerson Studio Theatre is just about the only place in town where you can consistently expect the unexpected. This past season saw the Studio functioning at its most creative. Dael Orlandersmith's incendiary Yellowman, the theatrical equivalent of picking at a raw scab, was directed with passionate intensity by Rep associate artistic director Susan Gregg. In stark contrast, Charlotte Jones' Humble Boy delivered an enchanted evening of civility and intelligence. The production, staged by Rep artistic director Steven Woolf, found virtues that were missing in the original New York staging. Not all Studio productions work, but that trek into the belly of the beast known as the Loretto-Hilton Center is always a venture worth risking.
Anyone who needs reminding that acting eloquence does not require dialogue should have seen Kevin Beyer's tenebrous performance in the New Jewish Theatre production of Arthur Miller's Broken Glass. The drama, set in Brooklyn in pre-World War II 1938, probes the unhappy life of Phillip Gellburg, a Jew who "doesn't like Jews," prefers the company of WASPs and is reluctant to acknowledge his roots. Although Miller's imperfect script is overwritten, Beyer's calibrated incarnation of a breathing cadaver was breathtakingly underplayed. Here was a man so consumed by self-loathing that even a shrug was an effort. After having acted in numerous plays at the JCC, Beyer is so familiar with this postage-stamp performing space that his nuances can be measured in millimeters. Once again Beyer revealed himself as an actor of microscopic sensitivity.
Ruka Puff's live show has always been outstanding: He tears the shirt off his flabby chest and crunks it up to eleven. The only rap against the mohawk-sporting, Hoo Bangin' Records MC is that the production on his debut, Escaped: Off the Chains, wasn't up to snuff. But that was forgotten with the release of his recent single, "Like a Pro," an explosive dance-floor anthem in which Ruka imparts that he's "looking for a girl that'll rub my belly!" The song even earned spins on the local corporate hip-hop stationsno mean feat. For this, we declare "Like a Pro" the Ted Drewes of crunk jams: local, thick and superior.
Because HotCity Theatre's GreenHouse staging of Skin in Flames, an intense Spanish drama written by Guillem Clua in response to America's invasion of Iraq, was an American premiere, everything about the work-in-progress was a surprise. But as a poverty-stricken Third World factory worker, Julie Layton's spectral portrayal transcended surprise and approached revelation. Layton is a staple in the local acting community; her sprightly turns often elicit adjectives like "charming," "delightful" and, well, "sprightly." But there was nothing winsome about Ida, a timid young woman sadistically exploited by a sexual predator. Required to excavate the dark shafts of her soul, Layton rose to the challenge with a performance that shamed the viewer, just as Ida had been shamed. Layton elevated an anonymous nonentity into a heroine worthy of Greek tragedy. Her shattering work left a raw scar on the memory that, many months later, refuses to heal.
With this year's release of Test Presses and Dub Platesan album eight years in the making that features collaborations with everyone from MF Doom to MC EihtDJ Crucial went from being St. Louis' best hip-hop DJ to being our best hip-hop artist. The album's transitions, scratches and (most impressively) production show that Crucial is hip-hop's Steve Nash; in other words, he makes everyone around him better. A longtime DJ at Blueberry Hill's Friday-night party, The Science, he now boasts props from national publications such as URB, XXL and Scratch. Folks around the nation are becoming hip to what we've known for years: Much like Cleveland, Crucial rocks.
Regular readers of this particular fishwrap might be surprised to see us freely admit that we like and respect our counterparts at St. Louis' Only Daily. But we know good work when we see it, and good work does get done at the Post-Dispatch. The labors of Bernie Miklasz perennially put the longtime Post sports scribe at or near the top of our list. Why? Because Miklasz doesn't merely lob commentary. He actually gets out and surveys the local sports landscape himself, then comes back and reports what he has foundaugmented with a major dose of skepticism and/or advocacy. That's what's known in the trade as informed opinion, and it's a commodity that's becoming all too rare. Yes, we've been known to ride Bernie for spreading himself too thin, what with his regular radio (KSLG [1380 AM]) and TV (FOXSports Midwest) gigs. But as long as the overexposure doesn't detract from Miklasz's reporting, he remains the must-read of all must-reads in this sports-obsessed burg.
With one member (drummer Rob Smith) living out of town, Riddle of Steel doesn't play St. Louis too often. But when the power trio does grace us with its presence, it's clear why Riddle of Steel is the best rock band in town, hands down: They're skilled purveyors of no-frills dude-rock inspired by stoner-kings Queens of the Stone Age, the viscous post-rock of Season to Risk and Touch & Go's entire spiky oeuvre. Whether they're tackling the Police (the band, not the people) or conquering Europe (the place, not the band), Riddle of Steel bring it on all cylinders.
Idealistically speaking, nothing could be more punk than the miscreant, the misfit, the black sheep. Taking their name from an old porn movie and proclaiming "cuntcockdancerock" as their mantra, That's My Daughter ooze rebellious spunk. The trio of guitarist/vocalist Tim Dreste, bassist/vocalist Sara Oberst and drummer/vocalist Lindsay Reber has been tempting crowds to shake their dicks and shake their tits to a Breeders-meets-L7 style of post-grunge punk since 2004. After the recording of the new Virgin Appeal, Cory Hammerstone of the Mega Hurts joined, boosting the band's estrogen level to a 3-1 lead over testosterone. But nitpick about gender or sexuality and be prepared to thrown down: Reber says members have had to retaliate against taunts and even gay bashing for their thrash-out-with-your-gash-out formula for vocal harmonies. Being the redheaded stepchild of the punk scene is not without difficulties, but that only gives That's My Daughter more fuel for their orgy of fires.
Jake Wagman is your prototypical old-school reporterscrappy, dogged, endlessly prolific. He also embodies the quintessential rumpled look, as if he just rolled out of bed or stayed up all night banging out the last few grafs for a Sunday banner story. The frenetic newshound prowls the corridors of city hall, eternally on his cell phone, a pen in his mouth, a stained cup of joe in one hand, a tape recorder in the other. His prose is clean and dispassionate, particularly when the assignment involves government or political coverage (which is often). Wagman is what we in the biz call a hard-news guy. As such, he has a flair for taking a snoozer of a storya school bond issue, a tax battle, an arcane piece of legislationand turning it into something, well, interesting. When Jeff Smith won his race for the state senate, Wagman observed, "Watching Jeff Smith's victory party, it was hard to tell whether he had won a race for the Legislature or for student council. College-aged kids were drinking beer and chasing each other with water guns. A live band belted out 'Free Bird' [sic]. And there was Smithplaying the drums. St. Louis, meet your next state senator." Our Wagman of the Year award goes to his dispatch about the four-foot lizard on the lam, which began: "It's still not a good time to be a bird in the Compton Heights neighborhood of St. Louis."