As you may have noticed, we were excited to be St. Louis music fans this year. And there is no more substantial document of the sound of this city in 2011 than the music released by its bands and artists. It is not an exaggeration to guess that the releases in the metro area number in the thousands, and while we did not hear every one, we heard a hell of a lot of them. So in an effort to jog the memory of existing fans and introduce some excellent music to others, we will be telling you about our favorite 40 St. Louis records of 2011 in no particular order.
The Breaks | Odd Man Out
It's been a whirlwind year for the Breaks. The group hit highs with a great CD release show in January, opening slots for The Ettes and JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound and a nomination for Best New Band in this year's RFT Music Awards. Then vocalist Collin Christopher and the group parted ways before their Undercover Weekend set, and the group's lineup faces further potential upheaval due to some members' inability to stay in St. Louis. Whatever happens though, the group will at least have left us a kick-ass EP in Odd Man Out. Taking their cues from such early-aughts luminaries as The Strokes and Franz Ferdinand, The Breaks don't break new ground in the five songs here, but with the catchy songwriting and dynamic performances on display here they don't need to. Christopher echoes the best parts of Julian Casablancas without outright aping him and guitarist Sean Gartner peels off fantastic Van-Halen style leads. With Odd Man Out, The Breaks prove that wearing your influences on your sleeve is fine as long as you have the songs and charisma to back it up.
Key Track: "Spaghetti." As well as The Breaks do anthemic garage rock, the best song here is the slight departure of "Spaghetti." Likely named after the type of western film its atmosphere conjures, a rolling country drumbeat propels the EP's best melody before a bridge led by another skillful Gartner solo cracks the song wide open.
Place You're Most Likely to see them play: With their lineup still uncertain, it's going to be a while before we see them anywhere. --Bob McMahon
Ryan Spearman | Get Along Home
Ryan Spearman, an open-mic night host, guitar instructor and fine folk singer, isn't kidding around when he talks about "going green." His latest album, Get Along Home, was recorded using instruments made from repurposed or recycled items -- cigar boxes, wine bottles and pizza boxes are all manipulated and employed throughout the album. Spearman, alongside his wife and collaborator, Kelly Wells (who is the executive director of the Folk School of St. Louis), founded the Green Strum Project to "explore connections between art and sustainability in St. Louis." It's a project that's easy to love even before you hear a note. As it turns out, the album of suitably hand-hewn folk tunes stands on its own, even without the ideological trappings.
The breezy, sunny strums of Spearman's tunes mix well with his slight drawl and honeyed delivery. The whistling blues of album opener "Mutton Chops" tells the tale of a two-bit scammer in a familiar story-song style that shows Spearman an apt pupil of his forebears, but nothing on Get Along Home comes off as purposefully old-timey or affected. In fact, his best songs show a topical bend to his songwriting, as on the artfully plucked "Promised Land." In the song, Spearman takes aim at American values with neither vitriol nor paranoia but with a weathered, wearying sigh. A similar vein runs through "Land of the Free," though the slow fade of "Hometown" is a better display of what becomes of busted dreams. Amid these moments of heaviness and hard questions come plenty of front-porch picking and light, jazzy strums. Baseball fans will take special joy in "Willie McGee," wherein the great Cardinals outfielder is cast as a folktale hero who strides tall alongside giants like Bruce Sutter and Ozzie Smith. St. Louis always loves the hard-hustling underdog, and Spearman fits that mold with such an ambitious and thoughtful project. --Christian Schaeffer Homespun: July 14, 2011
Glass Teeth | Notice of Termination
When asked what he would miss the most about playing with Glass Teeth, band member Matty Coonfield responded, "The look of indignation on the faces of people who paid good money to see something that they hoped they would like." That's Glass Teeth in a nutshell - cynical to the end. Their final CD (given out for free at their farewell show at the Heavy Anchor) expertly captures the tumult of their live show. Over 11 songs, the band churns out tightly-controlled art-damaged punk rock, with a heavy debt to Midwestern proto-grunge kings Killdozer and Jesus Lizard, and a dash of Pere Ubu in the keyboard rumblings. Lead singer Jeff Robtoy comes across like a slightly less demented David Yow, mumbling and shouting as if bound, gagged and held for ransom. The CD, of course, lacks Robtoy's live presence; those who saw even one show will never forget him wandering and insulting the audience, generally spending no time actually onstage. Glass Teeth may be no longer, but at least they went out with a solid final release.
Key Track - "Zeppo Marx." Robtoy is at his best here, ranting and telling bad jokes like a demented old man at the end of a bar.
Place You're Most Likely to Hear the Artist - Your turntable, CD player, or electronic listening medium of choice. Robtoy, Coonfield and Mark Early are also continuing in Tone Rodent.
Streaming track: "Work Party" --Mike Appelstein
Adult Fur | ii
Ryan McNeely has produced tracks for the likes of Rockwell Knuckles and Scripts N Screwz, and his dense, layered backing tracks carry faint whiffs of psychedelia and indie rock. But his solo work as Adult Fur shows that it's less correct to think of him as a hip-hop beat maker dabbling in rock & roll, and closer to the truth to say he's a musical pantheist. At eight songs and 24 minutes, ii is a brief but fetching sampler platter of McNeely's hazy shade of pop music. Most of these songs ride on a backbone of thin, clicky drum-machine patter and thick synth bass, and the BPMs are mostly set for a languid slow grind. In this sense McNeely shares a smartly retro-minded palette with St. Louis native (and now New York-based) Phaseone, another producer who unites touches of old-school hip-hop, outmoded synth pads and lush production techniques. But throughout the EP, McNeely showcases his high, dreamy vocals alongside tracks that, in another context, could have backed up a hard-rhyming STL emcee.
McNeely proves an able, if occasionally unremarkable, singer on these tracks -- in fact, he treats his voice more like another instrumental layer rather than a megaphone for any kind of lyrical message. He'd rather relish in the skitter of a treated high-hat or let moody guitar patterns set for a while against a wall of blippy arpeggios. Songs like "Blazertone" find Adult Fur at its most conventionally rock-driven, though the following track "Octangler" is lovably campy and new-wavey. McNeely's vocals take a back seat to French vocalist Sacha Bernadson, whose similarly high-reaching pipes help make "I Am Dream" the EP's Euro-trash standout. But sharing the stage is an easy move for McNeely, a natural collaborator with a thumbprint that will hopefully be found on an increasing number of local releases. --Christian Schaeffer