In an age where bands can succeed or fail on the basis of one MP3, it's refreshing that full-length albums are alive and well in St. Louis. Each year, Riverfront Times receives dozens of CD, MP3 and, occasionally, vinyl submissions for our local-review column, Homespun, and we do our best to keep tabs on the city's vast and varied musical community. The following ten releases reach beyond mere merch-table fodder or sonic résumés, however; they stand tall as capital-A Albums, worthy of several top-to-bottom spins.
Black Spade, Build and Destroy (self-released) It's hard to lose when you kick off a mixtape with a little bit of Stevie Wonder, but Black Spade's Build and Destroy doesn't coast on the strength of samples alone. St. Louis expat Trackstar the DJ has stitched together an eighteen-track program to highlight Black Spade's laid-back, soulful vibe and smart, socially aware rhymes. Other STL emcees Rockwell Knuckles, Vandalyzm and Coultrain drop in for a verse or two, but Black Spade's easy-to-swallow flow holds the whole affair together. The catchall mixtape moves from sinister, gamelan-like sounds ("Enemies Frienemies") to quirky beats under slowed-down Beatles samples ("I Heart") without missing a beat.
The Conformists, None Hundred (Sick Room Records) Noise-rock is a tricky, usually misleading term that gets thrown at the Conformists, but the band's greatest strength is its use of restraint: The band knows how and when to unleash a guitar squall and when to cut it teasingly short. The incremental tempo shifts that kick off "Jesus Was a Shitty Carpenter" evince these players' extrasensory understanding of their truncated rhythms and sharp, stabbing guitar lines. Mike Benker's vocals are clearer this time around, and on a song such as "Swim Home," he's confident enough to dramatically speak-sing, instead of settling into his usual full-throttle howl. The appropriately named "Pro Gear, Pro Attitude" ends the album with a cycle of melodic, meditative guitar-plucks, as a harmonically enhanced bass line locks in with cymbal splashes. After methodically climbing a mountain of burgeoning intensity, Benker provides the necessary cathartic release and lets his bandmates assist on the comedown.
Jumbling Towers, The Kanetown City Rips (self-released) After a long absence, Jumbling Towers is again gracing St. Louis stages with its hypnotic, carnivalesque indie rock. Singer, pianist and guitarist Joe DeBoer's vocal style is at turns manic, petulant, overwrought and seductive, but his suggestive, richly detailed lyrics assure that the band's songs go well beyond posturing. This year's The Kanetown City Rips pairs mutant funk grooves, basement disco rhythms and distorted hip-hop beats with a story line concerning a band of self-ruled adolescents in a not-too-distant dystopian future. The concept is both ambitious and playful, and the album amplifies the traits that have made Jumbling Towers a magnetic and polarizing band in St. Louis.
Rockwell Knuckles, Choose Your Own Adventure (self-released) Local emcee Rockwell Knuckles' Choose Your Own Adventure isn't just a nod to those well-thumbed paperbacks from your grade-school library. The reference is both a mission statement and modus operandi. Adventure features a long roster of producers, including locals Tech Supreme, Trifeckta and Black Spade, while Trackstar the DJ serves as mixmaster for the whole disc and ties the strands together with his usual aplomb. Nearly every track gives Knuckles a chance to stretch out. The dusty soul licks on "Hero for Hire" offer a slow burn in place of his normally cocksure delivery. No doubt he's still self-assured, but the varied production here and elsewhere on Adventure shows consistency amid versatility. The next track, "Hell Is Repetition," kicks off with a bit of funky campfire guitar, and those reggae strums give a lightness against the Spartan 808 beat and disembodied synthesized voices.
Pokey LaFarge & the South City Three, Riverboat Soul (Free Dirt Records) 2010 was a big year for St. Louis transplant Pokey LaFarge and his backing band, the South City Three. The dapper, diminutive acoustic bluesman played well-received shows (including a slot at the Newport Folk Festival and tour dates in the United Kingdom) and picked up notices from Spin and Mojo. One listen to Riverboat Soul reveals what all the fuss is about: LaFarge's endearing nasal twang blends with his band's threadbare jump-blues style. A blustery harmonica sends opening track "La La Blues" toward the heavens, though LaFarge is as skilled at crafting tender ballads as he is at unleashing foot-stomping rhythms. The languid "Bag of Bones" is a sweet ode to the vagabond lifestyle and the short-lived love of a good woman, and ragged fiddle lines and pocket-tight harmonies levy the tune.
Messy Jiverson, Rivers, Old Growth and the Wizard's Cloak (self-released) This instrumental group is much more concerned with setting a mellow mood instead of wowing its audience with solo after solo. In that sense, Messy Jiverson has more in common with some of Herbie Hancock's chroma-colored '70s albums (Sunlight in particular) than the Phish/Dead/Panic trinity. When the beat picks up, though, the band can move from laid-back grooves to high-energy rock & roll. With a little imagination, the go-go interplay of bouncy Fender Rhodes and ragged guitar on "Surfin' Mississippi" could pass as a Northern Soul backing track. Messy Jiverson isn't brainy enough to be Return to Forever or weird enough to be P-Funk. Instead, the smart instrumental band believes in the power of melody and song structure, thereby keeping its members from reaching beyond their grasp.
Cassie Morgan & the Lonely Pine, Weathered Hands, Weary Eyes (self-released) Weathered is the first disc to feature Cassie Morgan's backing "band" the Lonely Pine, a group containing only vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Beth Bombara. (The latter's own LP, Wish I Were You, was another standout 2010 local release.) Weathered amplifies the folk overtones of Morgan's earlier release; her acoustic guitar strums are simple, and Bombara's close harmonies and percussive flourishes keep the mood breezy but never lightweight. The bucolic, harmonica-aided "Gonna Be a Long Day" is a snapshot of farm life. In lesser hands, the song would come off as a trite example of rural color. But Morgan grew up in the southern Illinois town of Bonnie — a township of 400 people — which lends credibility to her more folk-derived songs.
Natural Selection, White Picket Fence (Bocumast Records) Singer and keyboardist Samuel Glover's vocals pack plenty of soul for a white boy, though at times he channels Edwyn Collins' straining ache. For all the band's soul affectations, Glover has as much in common with indie-rock singers as he does with R&B crooners, and that grit helps the disc from ever getting too slick. Likewise, bassist Nick Jost's rough-edged funk lines create grooves that are never smooth or smarmy. On the Huey Lewis hat-tip "She's Too Hip to Be Square," the slapped bass, slick guitar strokes and punchy horn blasts interweave over a glitchy drumbeat, offering Glover a jagged rhythm for his kitchen-sink drama. The title track continues the theme of domestic dissonance with weighty piano chords and a nimble (if distorted) drum-machine pattern. Glover's note-hopping, baby-please-don't-go falsetto in the song's bridge is a reminder that, like the best soulmen, he can lay it on the line when it counts.
Pretty Little Empire, Reasons and Rooms (Bellevue Box Records) Reasons and Rooms succeeds by building on the simple but distinct style that the band cultivated on its debut, Sweet Sweet Hands. The rolling drums and circular guitar picking of opener "Now Is not the Time" recall the shambling but affecting folk-rock of the band's earlier work, but a rollicking chorus shows nascent traces of rock & roll grandeur. "Islands (NC)" pairs brokedown balladry with echoing guitar lines and wheezing organ chords, and the breakneck "Dakotas" is a fun, strummy sing-along. A transitional album, Reasons shows a group that's both comfortable in its own skin and fearless enough to shed it from time to time.
Theodore, Hold You Like a Lover (Moon Jaw Records) Theodore's road-tested, singer-songwriter storytelling and tireless sonic experimentation align beautifully on Hold You Like a Lover, the strongest of the quartet's three LPs. Singer and guitarist Justin Kinkel-Schuster's mea culpas have never sounded sweeter or more sincere as on the opening track, "I Won't Be a Stranger." His narrator promises "surely I'll redeem myself someday" and proceeds to spend an album indulging in sins that make redemption seem like a cruel dream. Theodore's instrumentalists reveal the rough grain of Kinkel-Schuster's songcraft in the form of mournful banjos, intuitive percussion and artfully processed guitar tones. These sounds build over the course of the album before swirling into a tempest on "Death's Head," where echoing harmonica and feedback-heavy guitars collide in the band's most fully realized moment to date.