Urban Blight Players | Big Small Town (Insider Records)

Big Small Town isn’t a classic, though Track 11 certainly is, but most of it’s easygoing enough to merit a spin here and there for fans of local flavor and Gateway whimsy.

 

Urban Blight Players sounds like the moniker for a punk or hip-hop outfit, but the only thing remotely punk about this amiable release is its fully realized DIY ethos. Big Small Town is actually the work of Bill Michalski (better known perhaps as guitar player for Prune, one of St. Louis’s most unheralded little treasures), Wally Schwartz (the other guitarist in Prune, assuming bass duties here), and Benjy Portnoy on drums. Michalski, the singer for this trio, lacks the vocal flair of Prune’s Rich and Jen Ives, but he does a lot of things right on this distinctively St. Louis–themed recording. For one thing, he had the good sense to hire Jack Petracek to master the disc, and anything with Petracek’s name on it (Grandpa’s Ghost is among his credits) is gonna sound good. For another thing, Michalski wrote all 11 songs, and there’s no better way to develop as a songwriter than to just jump right in.

Michalski’s done a real high-dive in that regard, so kudos to him for musical bravery. The highlights: “Urban Blight” is one of the funniest St. Louis songs ever. Michalski gleefully namedrops all sorts of local references: “You don’t have to dial 1 before 636/Crossing the Missouri River Styx/Do you know where I can find a Walgreen’s store?/There’s one on every block but we can sure use more/So I just got back from North County/Where they have about 57 municipalities/Have you been to Bellefountaine Neighbors?/Bel-Nor, Belle Ridge or Belle Acres?” The chorus includes the lines, “I guess it’s just the St. Louis way/We move farther and farther out each day.” And a verse about the failure of St. Louis Center had me busting a gut. The folksy, jugband-style music and the full chorus that joins in at the end show that Michalski had great instincts and genuine inspiration here. The song’s a real hoot—a surefire candidate for any definitive St. Louis mix tape.

Elsewhere, “Sensitive Folk Singer” is also a wry ditty, with lyrics that express probably most of the things you’d expect about their subject. “Shantytown” is a rollicking number that shows Michalski has the energy to rock out on occasion (he also plays spirited harmonica); similarly, “Road Trip” and “Pennies in the Water” are nicely arranged up-tempo tracks that have enough musical detail to hold your interest. Prune’s Rich Ives guests on several tracks, adding especially nice piano to “Maid of Honor.” If there’s a shortcoming, it’s the occasional blandness of Michalski’s pipes on tracks like “Saturday Mornings” and “Baby Lives on the South Side,” something the disarming lyrical directness of “My Worried Look” also struggles to overcome—and nearly does.

But Michalski shows real promise as a songwriter, and a ready wit that could be one of his most potent creative weapons. Big Small Town isn’t a classic, though Track 11 certainly is, but most of it’s easygoing enough to merit a spin here and there for fans of local flavor and Gateway whimsy. More info: www.urbanblightplayers.com. Urban Blight Players will open for Sam Shaber at Off Broadway Feb. 24.

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