The best aspect of St. Louis' music scene is its refusal to be neatly summarized. A city this rich in musical diversity will never be defined by one sound but by the reverberations of many.
And by many, we mean very many. Even Homespun, our weekly column that reviews local music, can't catch everything. Records by Pokey LaFarge, Foxing and the Bottle Rockets found national (and sometimes international) audiences; solid LPs by acts like CaveofswordS and Beth Bombara showed refinement and consistency.
But of the fifty-odd local releases reviewed this year, these were the ten that dug in deepest — from promising debuts to welcome returns and plenty of solid, restless creativity in between.
American Wrestlers, American Wrestlers
When Gary McClure, a 34-year-old native of Scotland, moved to St. Louis, he began making lo-fi home recordings with little more than a cheap guitar and a drum-machine app on his iPhone. He had formerly played in the London-based Working for a Nuclear Free City and wanted to make a record purely on his own.
"I thought, 'Well, if I could write what I wanted to, what would it be?'" says McClure. "I think that's what I was writing when I wrote this new record. When I was twelve I heard bands like Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and that was my thing. That's how I learned to write songs — from those guys, from obsessing over those records."
While the hallmarks of grunge are not the dominant strain on the American Wrestlers debut, the guitar-driven, direct-to-tape energy shows equal parts tunefulness and DIY invention. Lead single "I Can Do No Wrong" rides on fuzzy bass and a metronomic 4/4 beat, but McClure's multi-tracked guitars whip and weave around his sweet, expressive vocals. If the recordings are slightly rough around the edges, the pop hooks and smart dynamics are irrepressible.
Arshad Goods, Black Sunday
Arshad Goods' refusal to be put in a box goes beyond his rhymes; the rich sonics and stuttering beats on the debut album from the University City native range from hard-hitting trap music to funky Soulquarian vibes. One of Goods' strengths is his willingness not only to bounce around styles and subgenres of hip-hop with comfort, but to subvert expectations and change directions within the track. The Quiet Storm jam "Mary Go Round" is as close as the album gets to a slow grind (aided in no small part by Aloha Mi'Sho's breathy vocals), but Goods drops a spitfire verse where most emcees would keep it smooth. That he ends the track with an emasculating voicemail message from his paramour is further proof that these songs thrive on conflict and tension, and they never play it straight.
Bo & the Locomotive, It's All Down Here from Here
As if to bless Bo & the Locomotive's new record with an opening prayer, "There Is a Time" proves that a band accustomed to guitar-addled, nervy rock songs can be spare and spacious with little more than piano and over-driven organ. After that hazy, nearly lo-fi opener, "Never Afraid" kicks the record into a different sonic space.
Part of the beauty of Bo & the Locomotive has always been in the group's synergy — namely, that four lovable knuckleheads who were decent but hardly mind-blowing instrumentalists could make such sturdy, robust rock songs. An insistent analog synth line is perhaps the biggest tell of producer David Beeman's influence on the record, reminiscent of his work with Née and Old Lights, while Bo Bulawsky's oft-laconic vocals and slow-burn songwriting feel purely kinetic.
Normally, there's little flash or dynamic range in Bo & the Locomotive's sound — the songs sidle into a mid-range space that would be blasé were the band not so locked-in or the singer less committed to telling his sideways narratives. Bulawsky's delivery is charming and detached alongside the pleasing grain of his voice, but the tools he deploys here — the knife-sharp movements of "In the Water" or the surprising tenderness of the domestically inclined "Cook" — suggest depth instead of distance.
The Educated Guess, The Educated Guess
If bandleader Charlie Brumley's earlier songs channeled Springsteen's penchant for symphonic, cinematic scope through the confines of a four-piece rock band, this self-titled LP takes the Boss' source materials and coats the tracks in technicolor brilliance. Brumley has always counted Phil Spector and Brian Wilson as inspirations, but with an army behind him — 42 musicians, including string and brass sections, as well as a chorus, are listed in the liner notes — the Educated Guess has now constructed its own Wall of Sound.
Along with those California pop signifiers, traces of Burt Bacharach, Motown and Philly Soul sneak through, and the girl-group harmonies of the Honeys serve as trebley angels on the shoulder of Brumley's plaintive, somewhat limited tenor voice. From a sheer compositional standpoint, there's been nothing to parallel the Educated Guess in the local pop and rock communities; these songs are precisely arranged and played with gusto and soul, and the scope of this self-titled album is both skillfully assured and musically ambitious.
.e, Of Crashing Symbols
Dottie Georges has been performing solo sets as .e for some time, using her guitar to craft sonically rich mood music, but Of Crashing Symbols marks her recording debut. Because this is the first time listeners have had a chance to sit with a complete .e recording, Georges takes the opportunity to display her range in her typically subdued fashion. "A Way (to Float) Away," with its shambling structure, lightly chorused guitar and bouncy bass, could have fit on a C86 or Sarah Records comp. If kids still made early-summer mixtapes for their crushes, this would be a side-A centerpiece.
A few songs later, the insistent drum programming and sub-octave distortion of "Click" finds Georges at her most aggressive. Many of her works strike a balance between these two poles, recalling the British dreaminess of Lush while channeling the digital unease of EMA. When .e stretches into purely electronic territory, the music reflects a similarly overcast mood with a new palette of tones.
On this eight-track album, Hylidae – the solo project of synthesist and singer Jon Burkhart — doesn't hide its dance-floor pretensions but skips right for the pleasure center. "Eulogy" mixes darkwave dub with nearly Caribbean textures for a wobbly, increasingly unhinged track. Some of that unease creeps into "NTHE," the album's longest song and its centerpiece, as a simple drum-machine pattern intensifies amid ominously pitched synths. As the patterns lock into a grid, falsetto — buried under delay and placed deep in the mix as to make his words obsolete — gives the track the feel of a yearning, utterly sincere Hot Chip offering. It's moments like these where Hylidae shows Burkhart's devotion to a certain retro strand of synth-and-sequencer dance-pop, but his sense of classicism is always paired with real-time manipulation and experimental strains.
Indiana Rome, Dope Dealer 2
If earlier albums found Indiana Rome inhabiting his mantle with top-dog braggadocio, the St. Louis-by-way-of-Indiana rapper's first cut "Dollar Short" opens the album with all the sweat and shortcomings that go into his hustle. It's a thoughtful, soulful rumination on struggle and regret that's given wings by a soaring saxophone lines, one of many groove-based tracks that helps give Dope Dealer 2 its largely silken feel. (Though, naturally, "Master P" pays tribute to the No Limit soldiers in both lyric and attack.)
Long-time collaborator Vega Heartbreak drops in for the AutoTuned, synth-funk slow jam "Rolling" and punctuates the hard-hitting "Woah Woah," a track that gives Rome enough grist to unleash his most fleet-footed, self-assured verses. Those two songs represent the extremes of the palette this time around, though most ride on smooth soul samples or center on loverboy hooks.
Little Big Bangs, Star Power
The whiplash from genre-hopping, even within songs, makes it hard to pigeonhole this relatively young but admirably prolific punk band, but that's probably by design. It speaks to Little Big Bangs' method of ripping it up and starting again that the rangy, squalling album closer "Aftermath" dissolves in the band's most gentle moment to date, a fadeout colored by tender drums, plaintive electric piano and piled-on vocals. This coda is as unexpected as it is affecting as the three singers coo and harmonize over a pretty good summation of the punk M.O.: "Fuck their world/we're all we've got." Like Sonic Youth's quieter excursions, the album's final moments serve as a foil to the noise that precedes it, a recasting of the same message with a distinctly different energy.
So Many Dynamos, Safe with Sound
You can't call So Many Dynamos' newest LP Safe With Sound a comeback album, even if it is the band's first full-length in six years. In St. Louis, at least, the group never really went away.
That the band has embraced its funkier, more rhythmically driven side isn't news to those who have caught a show around town over the past few years. But the collision of Cameo synths and Gap Band horn charts, particularly on "Matter of Fact," is an odd bit of zeitgeist-goosing for a track written and recorded more than two years ago (and well before Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars had to chip off a chunk of that "Uptown Funk" songwriting credit to their '70s and '80s R&B forebears). The shock of recognition doesn't stop the song from being a standout here, and an emblem of the band's maturing sound.
Tef Poe, War Machine III
War Machine III can't be divorced from the last twelve months of unrest, protests and hard conversations, specifically in St. Louis but with increasingly national resonance. Unpacking the composition of the album's cover art gives more than a few clues: weed and Hennessy, books on Martin, Malcolm and Tupac, a Guy Fawkes mask covering up the Holy Bible. Oh, and a pump shotgun resting across the rapper, activist and Ferguson native's lap. This is the third iteration of Tef Poe's War Machine series and a reminder that this is not a new struggle for the rapper; the difference is that the stakes have never felt higher.
It's clear from the album's first few songs — from the fury of "F.A.M.E. (Fuck All My Enemies)" to the self-actualization of "Prince" — that Tef (an occasional RFT contributor) is not interested in half-measures or mealy mouthed debates. It's ride or die all the way through.