III: Iowa City, IA
By Craig Eley & Andre Perry | 20 April 2007
A note from the locals:
Iowa City is a small college town in Iowa, a state that is the geographical center of the country though often relegated to outsider status in the cultural landscape. While the Midwest has been bolstered over the last decade by Conor & Co. in Omaha, that scene is a small representation of the kind of music being shucked out here in the Corn Belt. The music scene in Iowa City is incredibly diverse for a place that conjures up images of college-age white kids and people in overalls.
We’ve tried to put together a list of the best music in town, ranging from indie-rock hits to deep folk cuts to infectious hip-hop grooves. Invariably we’ve left off some classic local bands: experimental noise duo Lwa and all-ages punk rock queens Lipstick Homicide, to name just two. But hopefully this ‘cast is enough to turn you onto to this wonderful scene. Many of these bands will be performing at Iowa City’s celebration of Midwestern music, The Mission Creek Midwest Festival, which happens at the end of this month (and the ‘Glow will have coverage). So, thanks to all the bands that contributed songs, and apologies to many worthwhile cuts that didn’t make it. Without further delay: Iowa City. We hope you enjoy it as much as we do.
1. The Wheelers: “Ibis (Demo Version)”
- (0:01 – 3:29)
Welcome back to the ’90s. “Ibis” is vintage grunge, with heavy guitars and screaming lyrics that channel Stephen Malkmus and Frank Black. I hope “demo version” will eventually be dropped from the title; this song’s roughness is absolutely one of its strengths — especially in the guitar solo. Crank this up, and then crank it up even more for the last 45 seconds. Blisteringly good.
2. Bad Fathers: “Kith Me On The Lisp”
- (3:30 – 6:44)
- from _Angels In The Chamber _ (Rosemary Records; 2005)
The Bad Fathers posit themselves as Iowa City’s live hip-hop bad-boys: imposing mohawks, endless consumption of beer, and a hit-and-run strategy with the fairer sex. But in reality they go much deeper than cartoonish caricature. This pensive track showcases their ability to reflect beneath the surface. It also reminds us that hip-hop tracks recorded by live bands can be just as killer as programmed beats. Think: the Roots caught in a decadent Midwestern adolescence. This song is my soundtrack for 2007.
3. William Elliott Whitmore: “The Chariot”
- (6:45 – 9:59)
- from Song of the Blackbird (Southern; 2006)
Whilliam Elliott Whitmore has Iowa in his blood, and he packs houses with his growling Americana and huge stage presence. Song of the Blackbird adds clean production to his tracks, creating a wide, more expansive space for his Midwest soundscapes. “The Chariot” kills it with a beautiful piano and Whitmore’s dirt-in-your-fingernails style. Also well worth checking out is Hallways of Always, a collaboration with his former Iowa roommate Jenny Hoyston of Erase Errata.
4. Skursula: “Beekeeper”
- (10:00 – 14:31)
- from an untitled forthcoming LP in 2007
Skursula is on the bleeding edge of Iowa City’s chamber-rock scene. These two ladies — one on violin and vocals, the other on cello — take the best parts of their music theory backgrounds and mix them with energetic indie-rock flavor. They are one of the hottest and most interesting bands in town, sometimes joined by guest percussionists but most effective as a sharp and often surprising duo.
5. Miracles of God: “(You Better) Shake That Ass”
- (14:32 – 17:02)
- from Miracles of God II (self-released; 2007)
Miracles of God was the brainchild of Sam Locke Ward and Jason Hennesy, who alternate writing duties for the band. This is one of Hennesy’s tracks, and you can just feel it busting out of its rock and roll skin to be full-on dance anthem. The production keeps it loose and edgy, complimenting its own passive-aggressive nastiness. Every song they’ve ever recorded is available here.
6. Ft. (The Shadow Government): “Dong Is My Autopilot”
- (17:03 – 20:36)
- from an untitled forthcoming LP
This band reminds us to question complacency. Although they boast members from Iowa City to Chicago, these musicians are crucial factors in our town’s under-underground. Their music is challenging and often politically subversive. Killer rhythms, walls of noise, and anti-government messages are Shadow Gov’t staples. When not playing shows, some of their members book eclectic bands to play local all-ages shows in an effort to bring left-of-center and passed over music to the ears of unknowing.
7. Coyote Blood: “Waiting For The Sun/Our Sun is the Sky”
- (20:37 – 25:13)
Lo-fi and lovely, this Iowa City duo seems to live in a world of perpetual Kentucky Bourbon hangovers. Book them in a club with a state-of-the-art sound system and they don’t give a damn: they’ll set up on the floor with their minimal drum kit, guitar, and accordion and sing (mic-less) those whiskey ballads into yer ears for twenty or so minutes. Then they’re off to some bar that’s much too authentic for you and your faux-hipster posturing. And by you, I mean me. The first half of this cover track is yet another subtle reason for us to reconsider the power of the Doors.
8. Death Ships: “Story Never Gets Old”
- (25:14 – 29:14)
- from Seeds of Devastation (Faithful Anchor Tape Club; 2006)
This is the poppiest song on Death Ships captivating debut, a captivating country-rock album that has the band gaining well-deserved recognition from national fans as well as labels (Faithful Anchor a fake name; the album is self-released). Maloney’s vocals and the bouncy piano nail this one, showcasing the hooks that make these guys single-handedly the band everyone is waiting for to make it big.
9. The Envy Corps: “Rhinemaidens”
- (29:15 – 33:23)
- from an untitled forthcoming LP (Vertigo; 2007)
Technically, the Envy Corps, hail from the Ames/Des Moines area but they really belong to the entire state of Iowa. Poppier than Radiohead, more authentic than Coldplay, this band has struck a wonderful balance with their anthem-rock theatrics. They recently signed to Vertigo Records (The Killers) and recorded their debut album in England. “Rhinemaidens,” with its dancey beat and soaring vocals, is an Envy Corps staple.
10. Ed Gray: “Baby Bird”
- (33:24 – 37:13)
- from The Late Gray Ed Great (Hot Potato; 2006)
“Baby Bird” is the opening track on Gray’s latest LP, an album filled with folk/rock gems that reminiscent of Neko Case and Tom Waits. This song is a rhythmic, passionate love ballad, showcasing Gray’s skill as a lyricist. A line like “the stray dogs you throw scraps to / are used to eating shit” is indicative of the sardonic wit and weathered wisdom that Gray dispenses.
11. The Tanks: “Blood In My Eyes”
- (37:14 – 40:14)
- from Summer Creature (Floodwater Records; 2006)
Iowa City’s self-proclaimed rriot-ggguys, the Tanks bring the noise like a Washington, DC 1980’s basement-show a flashback. Their bassist is so good this trio (bass, drums, vox) decided against a guitarist. Vocalist Kevin Koppes takes his lyrical cues from Henry Rollins and shout his words upside your head with quite a literate touch. When asked in a recent interview what to expect at the next Tanks show, Koppes replied, “Just bring your knives.there’s gonna be a ‘biggest knife contest’. Don’t cheat: no swords. I’m talking knives, dude.” Although they are daunting, even scary at times, they are some of Iowa City’s nicest people.
12. Illinois John Fever: “Wonderland”
- (40:15 – 43:22)
These two guys are new to the scene but their live shows have already begun decimating unsuspecting audiences. Their weapons: Acoustic guitar with slide, a drum kit, and two voices. Their theme: the impending apocalypse. Their channel: dirty-ass blues. “Wonderland” captures Illinois John Fever’s powerhouse energy. It makes you feel like you might have actually train-hopped and lived life the hard way back in the days of the Dustbowl.
13. Escape the Floodwater Jug Band: “Jug Band Music”
- (43:23 – 45:13)
- from Whiskey Will Fix It (Super Amigos; 2007)
I saw Escape the Floodwater for the first time in someone’s basement not long after I arrived here, and it was a perfect venue for their acoustic jug-band revival act. Their debut LP captures that “down home” sound and the tongue-in-cheekiness with which they approach their craft (besides requisite jug solo, this track features the “glug-glug” sound of someone drinking). Super Amigos records is fast establishing themselves as the local powerhouse label, and buying this record will get you a homemade, hand-numbered gem of a record.
14. Caleb Engstrom: “Light in the Room”
- (45:14 – 47:59)
- from the forthcoming A Mountain or a Bird (Self-released; 2007)
Caleb Engstrom is the local Renaissance man, splitting his time between the visual arts and writing indie-folk songs. Some musicians just want to rock you into oblivion while Engstrom opts for layers of beautiful sounds. “Light In The Room” from his forthcoming LP is a good introduction to an artist who has built a solid local following that will hopefully spread across the country.
15. Lonelyhearts: “Overpass”
- (48:00 – 54:18)
- from the forthcoming Disaster Footage at Night (Three Ring Records; 2007)
Lonelyhearts is a long-distance romance between my esteemed colleague Andre Perry and San Francisco’s John Lindenbaum. “Overpass” is indicative of their sound, weaving dense layers of synth with sophisticated narratives about devastating losses. It’s country music with a flair for musical complexity, and has already been noticed on the San Francisco compilation At the Crossroads. Here’s your chance to grab that “big finale” that will seal the deal on your next mix tape.