With so much big news happening in the St. Louis rap world these days and the North Side rolling down Natural Bridge with a fleet of sparkling new SUVs, we've found ourselves here in the "Radar" bunker with a neglected stack of rock and folk CDs by some worthy musicians kicking for some deserved attention, musicians no doubt grumbling about that rap crap and the bandwagon-jumping "Radar Station" staff. What lies beneath is an acknowledgment of two of those offerings.
Jeff Shaw is a busy man, organizing open mics around town, juggling prima donnas, compiling collections of local singer/songwriters. Last year's Sweat Equity showcased the music of the men of the St. Louis songwriting community, and the recent Suite 16 collects on two discs the music of the fairer gender. Ably produced by Chris Deckard down at his Radio Penny studios, Suite 16 includes singers who draw from a whole range of inspirations, from Jewel Lite to Ani darkness, from Joni to Tori.
The highlights, of course, are those that reveal no cookie-cutter replication: Stacey Cox has a voice that breaks wonderfully on command and the courage to include a distorted guitar underneath her "Simple Things," which roars from the get-go, even when its pace settles into a near-dirge in the middle. Erin Hines' voice is a stunner -- thick, sturdy and one of the most beautiful on the collection, especially on "Hey, NASA," a clever song about her heart, lost in space. Heidi Dean (who sings both with Languid and as backup in Sarah Cloud's band) harmonizes with herself on "Cars on Sunday," pouring forth a dramatic vision of melancholy and longing. Nikki Nahra's voice is both delicate and tough, a good combination, and when she sings, "I'm taken away by the lines around your eyes," magic comes out.
The second disc is spottier, but Rebecca Ryan (formerly of O'Ryan Island, currently of Cobalt Blue) turns in the disc's highlight, the strange and spooky "Love Leaves a Trail." And in "I Comb My Hair, I Watch TV," Jan Marra assumes the voice of a 16-year-old, and her slice-of-life snapshot of that weird moment in life is perfectly imagined and captured.
The double-disc package is a bit overwhelming, and the collection would have shone brighter had Shaw, or someone, been a more ruthless editor: Over the course of over two hours' worth of music, there are as many duds as winners, and were the collection a single streamlined disc, it would have held more weight. As it stands, most singers on Suite 16 have an ace in them -- and a few have two. But the collection needed an iron fist to make it perfect, and it didn't have one.
Simple Mary's Diary offers a brand of hard rock that seldom surprises in the big picture; their music exists a smidgen to the left of the middle of the road, at least as far as your basic post-grunge guitar-rock music goes. There's not a lick of electronica in their sound or any sort of crazy hip-hop beat. They're never gonna break out into a mean rap; nor are they likely to surprise you with a jungle rhythm. Just the rock, thanks: They've got their amplifiers turned up, the distortion pedals cocked and ready to kick in, and a vocalist, in Josh Brett, who spits out a gravelly post-Cobain tone.
But within these tight constraints are songs that weigh a ton, songs that, because of their density, manage to hit the mark. Their recent CD5, Whatever Makes You Happy, contains their two best songs, the title track and "Magnetic, Baby" (it's a remix, though we can't for the life of us hear much of a "re" in the mix; it's definitely not an "extended dance mix"). On both, SMD guides the big rock through a tiny Sonic Youth blender and runs that mix through the Afghan Whigs' soul machine so that all of the songs have just a teensy bit of skewed dissonance and passion to them. None of their music is earth-shattering, but all of it sounds good enough to make the cut in the big-league rock & roll world, for what that's worth.
CORRECTION: If there's one thing we should have learned by now, it's to check and double-check any statement made about Uncle Tupelo, Wilco or Son Volt and not toss off something so easily fact-checkable as "Wilco hadn't played in St. Louis since their debut, A.M., in 1995" without running it by some of the countless Tupelo-heads in the city. We were, of course, barraged with calls and e-mails stating the obvious truth of three Wilco performances in St. Louis after that: two nights in a row at Mississippi Nights in early 1997 and another one later that year as the opener for Sheryl Crow. We apologize for the stupidity and grant all requests for permission to use the flub as ammunition against us.