So Iowa has some pretty interesting local music scenes. Iowa City is sort of the perrenial favorite, as it’s had a heavily creative, artistic, literary, and weirdo-friendly atmosphere to it for as long as I’ve been able to pay attention. Traditionally it has the track record of having the best and/or most enduring music venues in the state. It benefits somewhat from an organic connection to Chicago, in that the University of Iowa is a popular college for kids from the Chicago area to go to. Des Moines is the other big one, mainly by virtue of just being the largest city in the state, though being on I-80 midway between Iowa City and Omaha and on I-35 midway between Minneapolis and Kansas City doesn’t hurt (but doesn’t seem to help as much as you’d think, either).
What fascinate me are the smaller communities, the hidden-gem scenes. Two come to mind for me right away, and neither of them is my old home turf of Cedar Falls/Waterloo, an area which has been pretty hit-or-miss for a lot of years now. The ones I’m thinking of are Dubuque, which I really need to make a point to write about more here, and unlikely, out-of-nowhere Ottumwa, which I’ve written about, and about bands from, quite a bit. What is it about Ottumwa? It’s not even on a major river.
The Speak Up Records label, which I think may be the work of Jason Bolinger, formerly of The Slats and She Swings She Sways and an ex-Eggnog for those who care about Iowa rock history, is behind two pretty interesting recent releases out of Ottumwa, both of which strike me as being quite good as well as the kind of things that would have pretty broad appeal if given the chance, and sound considerably more accomplished than what someone not familiar with the area might expect out of a place that’s as outsider with respect to the so-called music business as is Ottumwa, Iowa. One is by The War I Survived, which Jason plays drums in and is named after a Slats song. They are currently in the process of releasing their debut album one track per week, with videos, and they’re only about three songs in so far and I have catching up to do as it is. I haven’t listened to them a whole lot but they seem pretty interesting. I’d say they’re the trio plays melodic, intricately arranged emotive rock, but even for as literally as I mean that, it sounds like just typical music-writer BS so instead I will refer you to their facebook page.
Bolinger also recorded and mixed this 8-song EP by North To The Future. His former She Swings bandmate Troy Morgan is on at least some of the bass and they claim to hail from Agency, Iowa: Ottumwa is really just the center of a scene that covers a few surrounding towns.
As Good As It Gets goes by in a flash: eight songs that mostly average right about two minutes, just about enough to sink the hook and get the point across. It starts out with two songs of wise-cracking alt-rock built around punky attitude and a noisy, reverby garage-rock guitar tone that some might misguidedly label as retro. Then things mellow out for a bit. “On The Ground” reminds me, in its second-person lyrics and phrasing, of Helium’s “Honeycomb” and has an especially nice section of melodic solo-trading between guitar and bass. The toy piano that shows up for half of the verse right after it is one of those tasty little sonic details that are nice in moderation and North To The Future tastefully avoid hitting you over the head with too many of, letting the songs themselves have the attention. “Home” and the title track that follows it are more warm and folky, the former sporting a viola. “This Is A Girlfriend” has a country feel, and by this point I start to notice that a lot of these songs are about girls with some troubles and moral failings but who you can’t help but feel for anyway. “Tornado” picks the volume back up and then the tempo too in its furious instrumental chorus. “Butterflies” qualifies as the album’s epic by coming at the end and being just over three minutes long. While the preceding seven songs are good fun enough, “Butterflies” hints at what this band is really capable of in terms of arrangement and melody, particularly in its instrumental second half.
North To The Future cover a lot of ground in just 18 minutes, and don’t waste a moment. You don’t even need much of an attention span to appreciate what they’re laying down. There are stories in the songs, even if sometimes you just get a rough outline.