When discussing a St. Louis artist's recording, "local" is occasionally used as an insult to its quality. In the dismissive context of "That band's album sounds local," the L word means a sonically inferior release. This year, artists in the area challenged the asinine notion that music made within city limits is intrinsically amateur by producing recordings of remarkable quality. And just as the St. Louis community encourages musicians of all breeds, the variety of pathways to an excellent album is endless.
Bo Bulawsky found his ideal recording method without leaving his own home. Bulawsky self-produced On My Way, the full-length album by his solo-project-turned-rock-band Bo and the Locomotive. "I thought I could record the music better than anyone who wasn't myself, and I disagree with spending large amounts of money to record an album," he says. "In my case, I felt I had the knowledge to do what I wanted without the added help or pressure of working on somebody else's time."
Bulawsky savored the freedom of working on his own, although the process would have been too tedious for some. "There were times where I would press record, have to run across the house to the drum set, get the headphones on and come in on time with the track, but I got pretty good at that," he says. "With that said, I definitely don't want to record album number two myself."
Despite all Bulawsky's meticulousness, his record maintains its ragged edges. If Coldplay's 2011 album Mylo Xyloto is constructed with the scientific precision of a skyscraper, On My Way is an Eiffel Tower made of Popsicle sticks and prechewed gum. Woozy guitars and percussion toys meander in the ether, tethered to the Earth's crust by Bulawsky's gravelly tenor and familiar melodies. Rather than obscure the view, the production casts a haze over Bulawsky's damaged indie rock. A polished take on the lethargic waltz "Headaches" or the trudging bounce of "Give Me Something" would be as tasteful as Auto-Tuning the Beatles.
Bulawsky was one of many St. Louisans who found their voice in self-sufficiency. Quality homemade records by Mikey Wehling, Ou Où, Britches and Sheep in Wolf echo a national trend fueled by the decreasing prices of recording equipment. Bulawsky also feels that listeners' habits have changed; he name-checks Neutral Milk Hotel, Wavves and Neon Indian as artists that have increased the average human's tolerance for lower-fidelity recordings. He sees positivity in these patterns. "The main benefit is that songs are coming out that may have never seen the light of day otherwise," he says.
When beloved hometown outfit the Blind Eyes began working on its sophomore record, With a Bang, singer and guitarist Seth Porter says the DIY route was never a consideration. "I don't know that any of us are exactly cut out for doing it ourselves," he says. "When we record, we like to go, go, go. Working with someone who handles the technical aspect makes it easier to get in there and focus on our performances."
The Blind Eyes entrusted engineer Brian Scheffer on its debut, Modernity, and the band returned to his Firebrand Recording — two-time winner of RFT's "Best Recording Studio" — for its follow-up. The combination of the band's confident pop with Firebrand's professional gear and Scheffer's experienced ear yielded one of the most solid local records in ages. The infinitely catchy and timelessly rocking With a Bang is as far from amateur as albums come; its timbre recalls records by the Promise Ring and Burning Airlines that producer J. Robbins cranked out of DC's iconic Inner Ear Studios at the turn of the millennium. The snare drum sound on "Hold Down The Fort" alone is enough to induct Brian Scheffer into the local recording hall of fame.
Scheffer gives muscle to the Blind Eyes' power pop, a skill that frequently puts him behind the boards of some of the area's best heavy recordings. Firebrand's 2011 roster includes Sine Nomine's Super Molecular Dust Separator, the Lion's Daughter's Hemimetabolous EP and the Humanoids' self-titled album. "The records that come out of Firebrand are very transparent and documentarian," says Seth Porter. "It makes sense that heavier, precise bands love to work there, because you will definitely hear every single note."
In terms of precision, bands are rarely as exact as metalcore quintet the Gorge, which dropped the razor-sharp debut Prehistoric Relapse this May. The album is all meat, remaining heavy even when its guitars veer into geometric atonalities that stray from metal's low E-string comfort zone. Given its clarity and weight, you might expect to see Converge's Kurt Ballou or Mastodon/Isis producer Matt Bayles on Relapse's liner notes. Instead, you'll find Dan Mehrmann and Miles Vandiver from local art-pop group Dropkick the Robot. Miles engineered the album at Mehrmann's Jettison Studios, whose clientele also includes the Funky Butt Brass Band — which employs a very different kind of metal than the Gorge.
"We weren't following any particularly heavy model," the Gorge guitarist Phil Ring explains. "We wanted a natural recording. Dan and Miles are very specific about getting accurate sounds and making sure everything is pristine in that sense." After tracking the songs, the band mixed the record at Music Creek Studios with Dan Burris. "We wanted to get into a studio environment, work on a big mixing board and use analog gear instead of digital plug-ins," Ring says. "It was great to mix outside of a computer."
The Gorge has explored many options in its brief existence; the band self-produced its first EP, worked in the area's most professional studio and is toying with the idea of booking time at Firebrand for an upcoming release. Still, these methods barely expose the myriad ways music is made in St. Louis. Anthony Engelhardt releases thoughtful electronic tracks under the moniker Ra Cailum. His EP Finding My Way sounds like a Nintendo eating '70s era Miles Davis LPs and is on par with any electronic music released anywhere this year. In some ways, Ra Cailum's operation is the opposite of that of rock bands who write and rehearse before entering the studio. For Engelhardt, recording and composing are one in the same. "I usually start with a synthesizer patch, build a drum rhythm and get a rudimentary structure to the track," he explains. "After that, I add incidentals until I can't fit anything else in and then start editing things out and mixing."
One of Engelhardt's favorite local artists, experimental legend in the making Eric Hall, employs an entirely different process. He improvises with digital equipment and records his compositions in real time as they are written. Hall recently released Live Solos 2005–2010, 22 hours of improvisational recordings with exceptional fidelity. The live element, often a distraction in rock or jazz recordings, provides a welcome spontaneity to the listening experience.
St. Louis music fans have long spoken of a community that is bubbling, preparing for an artistic avalanche. While we can't predict what next year will hold for our little Gateway to the West — mouths are watering for new records from Spelling Bee, So Many Dynamos and Pretty Little Empire — this year's stellar recordings look forward to a future in which saying an album "sounds local" is a compliment. Whether 2012's best local albums are recorded at homes or studios or on a handheld Sony Walkman, one truth is self-evident to Bo Bulawsky. "A good song is more important than a good recording," he says. "A great song recorded averagely is enjoyable. A bad song recorded perfectly still sucks."— Ryan Wasoba