Who says the recording industry is dead? The major labels may be in their final days, but that hasn't stopped dozens and dozens of local acts from committing music to tape (or hard disc) and releasing it into the wild via CD, vinyl or MP3. Through Homespun, the local-music-review column, we do our best to keep up with the onslaught of new releases by St. Louis-based artists. Here, in alphabetical order, are the ten best recordings to cross our desk in 2009.
The Blind Eyes, Modernity: The three members of the Blind Eyes first bonded while playing in garage-rock act the Gentleman Callers. However, the trio's formative years didn't foretell how fresh and irrepressible Modernity, its debut, would be. The band's sound is almost novel in its simplicity: Songs are built around jazzy guitar chords, always-bubbly bass lines and restrained, boundary-shaping drums. The key ingredient, though, is Seth Porter's voice, which can be choir-boy clean or full of garage-rock grit from one verse to the next. "Brasil 1957" is emblematic of the Blind Eyes' way with a tune: The shouted backing vocals and zippy guitar line give the song an immediate hook, and the stair-stepping chorus wavers between tension and release at every chord change.
Celia, Transformateurs: Celia Shacklett sings songs that are often upbeat but never entirely carefree. Sure, many of her songs are suitable for young'uns, but that hardly makes her a modern-day Raffi. There's an audible positivity that her voice exudes, but on Transformateurs, it's clear that Celia has more on her mind than feel-good songs. The clearest example of her range is also the disc's most high-profile track: "Things You'll Miss," written and performed with folk icon Bruce Cockburn, is a smoky, blues-based kiss-off that finds Celia at her beguiling and smoldering best.
Fattback, Canary: The kind of music Fattback plays — a mix of Southern-blues boogie, jammy funk and unhinged rock & roll — is great in concert but rarely translates well onto an album. And that's what makes Canary such a surprise: It has the energy of a live show and the economy of a great record. The five-piece band tears through eleven songs filled with lyrical nonsequiturs and quick, dirty riffs without missing a beat. Let's face it: Any band that can sing about being hunted by a zombie moose (as Fattback does on "22 Swamps") and not make you want to rip your ears off must be doing something right.
Grace Basement, Gunmetal Gray: When Kevin Buckley made his first record under the Grace Basement moniker, he played every note on the disc. For his second album, he incorporates his live band without sacrificing the precision of his harmonically rich, '60s-pop-indebted songs. Gunmetal Gray allows Buckley's craft to spin out in all directions — the feel-good rock songs such as "There He Goes" are effervescent, while the melancholy of "Land of Endless Change" burrows ever deeper. With a bigger sonic palette, including Irish folk instruments and bright brass sections, Grace Basement keeps inching toward the rock & roll grandeur sewn into the DNA of these songs.
The Helium Tapes, Ghost Wave: Ghost Wave sounds like the Helium Tapes took the raw materials from its 2008 debut record and crammed them into a corset. This time around, the psychedelic guitars, ominous bass patterns and Sunyatta Marshall's vocals are more lean and lithe, and the restraint places the focus on contours of the band's style of dark-tinted rock & roll. Brandon Mason's keyboards, which take on a heightened role this time around, go a long way toward filling in sonic gaps and setting the appropriate mood. However, Marshall's powerhouse vocals take center stage: Alternately strident, bluesy and vulnerable, her voice gives life to these songs of devotion, doubt and distrust.
Old Lights, Every Night Begins the Same: In 2009, Old Lights leader David Beeman played a bunch of well-received shows, released an excellent debut record and promptly decamped to Oregon to begin work on his next batch of songs. Until he returns (or until those new songs materialize), music lovers have plenty to sift through with the vinyl-only Every Night Begins the Same. Built around bright, Brill Building piano chords and Gabe Doiron's shimmering guitar playing, Beeman and company offer ten songs of romantic insecurity, sybaritic overindulgence and good old-fashioned self-loathing — an indie-rock trifecta if ever there was one. And yet, the exuberance shines through the band's refined sense of harmony, melody and the simple dynamics of classic pop music.
Phaseone, Thanks But No Thanks: If you always liked hip-hop but wished it had fewer vocals and more Blade Runner-style synth interludes, Phaseone is your man. Andrew Jernigan is a DJ, producer and remix artist whose own mixtapes serve as a warehouse for retro-styled beats. A typical track on Thanks But No Thanks uses glossy keyboard strings, an echoing drum machine and a few well-placed vocal samples to create a mood that is both futuristic and familiar. Unlike a lot of producers, he doesn't cram tons of breaks or fat hooks into his tracks — he treats the tracks like songs and lets them progress and climax in a haze of Moog bass and skittering hi-hats. In doing so, Phaseone has created the rare instrumental hip-hop album that doesn't need an emcee; the grooves work just fine by themselves.
Pretty Little Empire, Sweet Sweet Hands: Striking a balance between weary bedroom folk and well-orchestrated chamber pop, Pretty Little Empire's debut album, Sweet Sweet Hands, is calm, quiet and utterly addictive. Singer and guitarist Justin Johnson has a hangdog drawl that doesn't take up much space but never fades into the background, and the band's ragtag orchestrations cloak his tunes in a rootsy fog. The sleepy group vocals clash with a blaring trumpet in "Good Morning Early Riser," and sharp acoustic guitar strums bisect the atmospheric slide guitar lines on "Winter Blues." Occasionally Pretty Little Empire isn't that pretty at all, and that Sturm und Drang creates healthy tension within the band's often unadorned folk songs.
Sheila Shahpari, What Is Real: Like a mellower Fiona Apple — or a less retro-minded Nellie McKay — Sheila Shahpari treats her first record as a C.V. of her many talents. A singer-songwriter fond of coffeehouse folk, jazzy elegance and avant-rock stylistic diversions, Shahpari never settles into one mode throughout these eleven songs. An artful string section guides "Until I Find" with occasional traces of atonality and drawn-out, resonant drones, while those same strings add pizzicato flourishes to the next song, the summery "Italian Sky." It's hard to know where Shahpari will go from here, but if What Is Real is any indication, she has no shortage of options.
So Many Dynamos, The Loud Wars: The Loud Wars is the record that So Many Dynamos has waited years to release — literally. After a long, scattered recording process and an ever-changing street date, well-respected indie label Vagrant Records finally released the disc this summer. With crisp, everything-in-its-right-place production by Chris Walla (Death Cab for Cutie), the band sounds right at home unleashing disjointed drumbeats, bottom-heavy synth bursts and prickly guitar counterpoints. Lead single "New Bones" pulsates with an accelerated trip-hop backbeat and eight-bit sound effects, while "The Formula" adds more stitched-together samples, along with touches of Afro-Cuban percussion, to close the disc in fine fashion.