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.

you are home ... cover

Matthew Dake’s one-man recording project You Are Home is known for hyperactive instrumental compositions built around bass guitar and drums that at their most accessible moments sound a bit like some kind of mathy Krautrock version of Lightning Bolt. Depending on who you ask, the results are either amazing, confusing, or maddening.

“…” is the first You Are Home album to be recorded in Dake’s shiny new basement studio setup. It revels in a richer color palette than most previous You Are Home material by incorporating a wider range of instruments. Where earlier You Are Home releases would tend to go for relentlessly bludgeoning, “…” is more likely to aim for a groove or mood you can really get wrapped up in.

“Idiot Police” starts off with a floor-tom roll that sounds like the beginning of The Stooges’ “Dirt”, then launches into a free-jazz explosion of drums, delayed Casio keyboards, and the crumbliest distortion imaginable. After this intro burst, the track alternates between a more guitar-heavy version of the well-established You Are Home sound, and what sounds like a distorted acoustic guitar, possibly recorded though a broken microphone, without ever losing hold of its furious 7/8 riff. The keyboards and junky acoustic guitar introduce one recurring theme I find intriguing in You Are Home releases, that of bringing lo-fi sonic elements into a relatively polished production. Next “Live At The Sands” keeps up the quick tempo and adds a ringing piano. It actually sounds like its title, like Neu or Kraftwerk performing in an exotic outdoor location.

Some tracks on “…” bear the mark of, or may just be borrowing the feel of, looper-based music, a hypnotic, rather mechanical repetition with instruments joining in one at a time. Helping to keep things interesting is a cross-fading of things into each other, such as the way “Dummy” fades into the ambient synths and organ that comprise the first half of “…”, sounding like something that Can might have done on either Ege Bamyasi or Tago Mago (“Peking O” maybe?), which then gradually cross-fades with a 6-beat funk riff that sounds like an intro in search of something to introduce, which then cuts off abruptly just a little after I start to lose my patience with it.

After being treated to a dense glob of noise backed by an intense Neu-ish groove called “somebodyupthereHATESme” and a very nice slow-build drone piece called “My Dirt Makes Your Mud”, we get to “Airborne,” which is the real masterpiece of this album, even though it is technically like another series of scenes fading into one another the way “Dummy” and “…” are put together. There’s a menacing one-note guitar chug forming the rhythmic basis behind a jazzy meandering clarinet and a piercing synth-piano note at regular intervals that evokes the seat belt sign chime on an airplane. It’s then joined by a descending horror-movie piano melody — in fact the whole track sounds like good horror-movie soundtrack stuff. A wide variety of different sounds fade in and out at different times, keeping the scene constantly shifting — there’s Eastern-ish percussion, an upright bass, and some watery synthesizer bloops, organ, and Claire Kreusel doing the kind of ethereal “human theremin” vocals she’s known for in Longshadowmen. By the end only Claire and one long organ chord are left standing, and then even Claire disappears leaving the organ and a distant wind sound to fade slowly out. It’s an intricate, highly layered, carefully constructed piece, particularly given its being constructed from repetitive elements, and is really something pretty special and profound.

Finally there’s “Ditchweed Blues,” a slide-guitar blues goof so raw and trashy sounding that I wonder whether it’s actually Pink Villa. Coming at the tail end of the album following “Airborne” it feels extraneous and a bit jokey but if Dake wanted to end the album on a not-too-serious note, which seems like him, then it works.

Matt Dake’s ADD approach to composition isn’t always easy to follow, and lives at a kind of nebulous gray area between “experimental” rock and the avant-garde. If you already are a fan of weird stuff, you’ll find “…” easy to get comfortable in, very enjoyable but not “difficult” listening. On the other hand, if you’ve found You Are Home dense and difficult before (delightfully so, in this writer’s opinion), “…” is a good opportunity to give it another try. It wins either way.

Disclaimer: this post is only about as serious as the video.

I’m pretty sure this video was inspired by me about two days ago. Apparently bartenders are some touchy motherfuckers who get pissed off over really trivial shit. Come on, man, the tape was two feet away. What else were you doing with it? Oh, sticking it on your face, well, obviously that’s much more important.

I mean, I don’t always or even usually forget to bring tape, but dude, sometimes shit happens. You mention all the other things a band has to do: gassing up the van, writing the songs, practicing, booking the gigs (not to mention lugging heavy equipment in/out/on/off of vans, stairs, doors, stages, etc). You fail to mention that we also have to do all that shit in addition to and around our day jobs. Whereas the bar is your job. We’re not even getting paid to play the fucking gig, and then we still have to get up and go to work in the morning.

Having all that to juggle is all the more reason why occasionally a detail like tape might get overlooked as we’re jetting out the door to try to get some posters hung up quick in the five minutes we can steal before we have to be somewhere else. We don’t expect to be resented for troubling our fellow man for a couple measly little pieces of tape. We thought we lived in a world where people are willing to help each other out with little things sometimes. So much for that famous Des Moines friendliness, I guess. Sorry I interrupted your sitting-around-magazine-reading.

Here’s an idea, bar: put up some fucking corkboard and keep a few pins stuck in it. Nobody bugging you for tape, plus your wall doesn’t end up looking like shit from old tape bits and fucked-up paint. Problem solved. Or you know, don’t be such a whiny pussy, that works too.

I’ve often contemplated the innocent way people experience music who aren’t knowledgeable about the instruments and how it’s made, like young children. I recall as a youth, before I knew as much about what sounds guitars and drums can make, getting all kinds of cool mental pictures from the sounds in music. I didn’t always have just the mundane perception of a guitar or a drum; sounds made by instruments would instead give me mental images of dust blowing across a desert, a wheel of fortune spinning, a steel foundry staffed by monkeys. I miss that experience and kinda feel it’s a more pure perception of music.

I actually get some of that feeling back when listening to Descent. The imagery conjured up by the sounds is so strong that even while consciously I know and recognize that I’m hearing guitars, drums, vocals, pianos, it adds up to more than that. Bloodiest conjure up a world here and I find myself very much in it, like my ten-year-old self hearing Yes’s Fragile for the first time, instead of standing outside analyzing it. That’s a very difficult place to get a jaded old music nerd like myself to, and it’s very special.

Descent is yet another feather in the cap of the hyper-active Bruce Lamont, in a string of startlingly original and artistic albums of heavy music he’s had his hands in these past few years, and even raising the bar another notch or two. By now he’s gone far above and beyond the role he first became known for as the saxophone-wielding lead vocalist of brainy avant-metal freaks Yakuza. The mood of Descent continues in the hypnotic, haunted vein Yakuza started to incorporate on Of Seismic Consequence and that Bruce then expanded on with his solo release Feral Songs For The Epic Decline. This band and this album are much more than a Bruce Lamont project, however: this bears the mark of an intensely collaborative, collective development, every person in on it committed 150%.

The closest reference point that comes to mind is Swans circa The Great Annihilator but more metallic and on a much more abstract, mystical trip. There’s the epic sweep of post-rock but without being hemmed in by the predictable, overused build-build-build-crash progression. It’s hypnotic, symphonic, and exotic, repetitive without repetitious, with a tendency for classical-like intricacy in the quieter sections and numerous moments of intense melodicism. Lamont rages like a mad shaman as is his wont. Overall it’s the music of the holiday ritual dances of spectres existing on another plane, inhabiting an ancient forest where it is eternally midnight.

Bloodiest have created something dark, heavy, and truly frightening and beautiful here that transcends boundaries of metal or rock music, is almost beyond mere music itself. I’ve never heard anything quite like it and who knows if we ever will again.

our blood cover

There is a tendency to split up Richard Buckner’s ouvre into two parts, the earlier more “country” era, and the later more “indie” era, with the transition occurring somewhere between his last album for MCA Since and his signing on with Merge for 2004’s Dents And Shells. I will admit to not being personally as familiar with the earlier work, having heard what I have of it probably only once via my Why Make Clocks/Fetal Pig bandmate Dan, who is responsible for turning me on to Richard Buckner in the first place. But there seems to still be a split between those who prefer the earlier records and those who appreciate more the 21st century Richard Buckner; a couple early reviews I saw for Our Blood hinted at the crusty old “return to form” meme, with one even declaring it his best since Devotion + Doubt. Personally I don’t understand this split. I think the open-minded listener can appreciate all that Buckner has offered up over the years and see the consistency and evolution in it. From what I’ve been able to tell, he hasn’t made a bad album yet and probably never will.

I quite like the more uptempo (though hardly upbeat) songs of Dents And Shells and Meadow, which seem to intentionally eschew intra-song dynamics for a kind of motorik feel that gives the vocals and decorative instrumental elements lots of space to stretch out — the pedal steel line introduced during the first verse of “A Chance Counsel” always comes to mind as an especially gorgeous example of this — while the less rhythmic, softer numbers like “Charmers” provide a contrast, the grassy rolling pastures alongside the highways of the faster songs. It makes for perfect music for driving the highways of northeast Iowa.

In an interesting headfake, the intro to the opening track “Traitor” starts out looking like another barnburner album-opener in the mode of “A Chance Cousel” or “Town” (“barnburner” being a very relative term in Buckner’s subdued catalog), but then the drums drop out, to return only intermittently in this song and then not be heard from again for the rest of the album. From then on, Our Blood places its emphasis firmly on the softer side of what was the appealing contrast presented on the previous Merge albums; the quick strum of “Town” returns for “Witness” and “Hindsight” but with only a few stray maraca or tambourine hits for percussive accompaniment.

Absent this song-to-song contrast or a driving rhythm section, all the Richard Buckner sonic signatures of recent albums are still here: his rich and slightly weary voice intimately right up front and center, an acoustic or sometimes electric guitar or occasionally an organ as the main chordal instrument, short melodic figures on twangy electric guitars, electric piano, and pedal steel flitting in and out in between the vocal lines. There’s a quality to the music on Our Blood that has been described as cinematic, and that can possibly be ascribed to Buckner’s having worked in the meantime on a score for a film that ended up never coming out. The instrumental “Ponder” especially sounds like it may have been intended for that score.

Buckner’s songs seldom if ever follow a conventional song structure or have immediately identifiable verses or choruses. Usually each verse-like section will go through multiple melodic stages, sometimes with so many changes away from the root that you wonder how the phrase will ever make it back around full circle for a repeat. This suits well his oblique style of lyrics, which involve both disconnected phrases and run-on sentences that slip through so many semantic layers that one can easily lose track of what’s going on, like in the writing of Faulkner or even Ferlinghetti. This is especially the case on “Gang”.

One aspect of Buckner’s lyrics that I’ve always found interesting, especially after Dan pointed it out to me, is the variations of phrasing, including discrepancies between how the lyrics are sung and how they appear in the included lyric sheet (which I believe all of his albums’ packaging include one) and how these variations seem to open up subtly different layers of meaning. For example in “Escape” you hear, “No one’s ending up with what they thought. They’d figured out: well, this is what they get. Cold and lost, close calls take their toll some days.” But if you’re following along in the booklet, you read: “No one’s ending up with what they thought they’d figured out. Well this is what they get, cold and lost. Close calls take their toll some days.”

Each song suggests a story, though what exactly the story is may take some investigation and still turn out to depend quite a bit on your own interpretation. Though quite a bit of these stories seem to take place at night, the music on Our Blood mostly has an early-morning feel, like the dew and sunrise following a long rollercoaster of an all-nighter, turning them into recollections. Of the stories, “Confessions” seems most easily understandable, seemingly recounting a return to one’s hometown after seeking fortune among “sellouts with someone to try, but nothing to spend” (who might also be the sort of characters that were referred to in “Charmers”).

It’s tempting to call Our Blood a less immediate album than those just before it, but I’m not sure such a statement holds up to scrutiny. Our Blood rewards different kinds of listening. As simply a chill album to put on, it’s readily enjoyable and consistent, and repeated spins reveal nuances in the instrumentation; and when you want something to really dig into, contemplate and engage with on a literary level, it provides many hours of emotions, images, and concepts to chew on. Even without the difficulties Richard Buckner had in making this album, it’s the kind of work that you can totally understand being five years in the making.

hmg my new tape cover

I enjoy noise/sound-art stuff like this but am never quite sure how to review it. Nonetheless I thought this was worth making some mention of. Hal McGee’s humbly-titled latest is 60 minutes of concrete sound collage (broken up only where the tape needs turned over) made up of field-recordings, some circuit-bent electronics, and spoken-word, all captured on a handheld cassette recorder and then mixed together. It blends into a kind of midrangey white-noise from which emerge at various points voices, Casio keyboards, city traffic, police sirens, amplifier feedback, construction machinery, barking dogs, chirping birds, electronic noise, and bits of Hal ruminating about the ideas and theories behind his work, or talking to his dogs. As dense, abrasive and dissonant as it is, it can be rather relaxing. It’s also great to put on (with or without headphones, depending on the circumstances) when you want to ignore or drown out every other sound going on around you, which has made it helpful for me when I’m at work trying to concentrate on code while a construction crew is working next door, because with this playing they blend right in. It can be downloaded from bandcamp for $2 or, in true old-school home-taper fashion, acquired on cassette by mail order or trade (see this link).

seed of something cover

Enough has been made of the youthfulness of the high-school-aged The Seed Of Something. I’m always a tad uncomfortable with the need to constantly point to a teenage band’s age. Too often it’s used as a crutch: the explicit message is that it’s amazing that such young kids are doing this band thing, but the hidden agenda is to keep your expectations from getting too high and to head off criticism of a band that is otherwise not at all good or interesting — see the long-defunct Waterloo grunge band Mad Cow Disease. There were 16-year-old kids making records in the 1950s and ’60s that most of us can only dream of matching the greatness of. It’s not that special that your kid can manage to repetitively bang out a power-chord. Besides, youth is temporary.

On the other hand, when a band surprises you with skill and artistry that seem beyond their years, it’s only natural to want to point it out. Had I just wandered into Vaudeville Mews some night and heard The Seed Of Something’s music coming out of a group of mid-twentysomethings, I believe I would still conclude that this was a band worthy of my attention.

Then again, for The Seed Of Something, youth may be an advantage, and not as a convenient excuse either. One gets the feeling that if they were older, they wouldn’t sound quite like this. The Seed Of Something’s music feels like the product of kids who have discovered rock and roll but are still too unjaded to feel concerned with fitting into the conventions of a niche or subgenre. It’s refreshingly honest and sidesteps the usual hip and/or overthought bullshit in a way that only a certain kind of inexperience seems to be able to do. Those of us who feel compelled to analyze will find elements of 1960s garage rock, 1990s indie-rock, and 1970s punk, blended together so well on this self-titled debut that the distinctions fade away; the album never comes off as a collection of genre exercises but rather a band working from a wide range of inspirations from which a coherent sound arose organically.

The Seed Of Something open the album with about as good an introduction as you can get to their mentality and motivation. While the title “Soundwaves” is unlikely to be consciously referencing a long-defunct record store, the lyrics describe the joy of being immersed in powerful music. Jasper Farlow and Stone Mills trade off guitar, bass, and lead vocals in The Seed Of Something, and often sing together as they do here: “I am drowning,” they tell us first in unison then in harmony, “and there’s no place I’d rather be!”

The estimable skill of lead guitarist Dylan Lamb is the kind of high-powered weapon that a lesser band of this age bracket would be tempted to overuse to the point of becoming tiresome, but The Seed Of Something show taste in having him cut loose when it really counts. Lamb’s solos occasionally seem a bit conventionally classic-rock when set to such raw duct-tape tunes, but it works more often than not, making for lively air-guitar-worthy climaxes. There’s a nice bit of James Williamson scuzz around the edges of his delivery, and the Pixies bends with which he accents the refrains of “Debbie” are a treat as Mills’s guitar carries the simple but strong countermelody. Farlow gets his guitar-hero turn as well in the form of a mellow dual-tracked moment in “Mood Ring.” Luke Bascom keeps things swingy throughout, instinctively letting the rhythm breathe where it should.

The basement production hits a nice middle ground that, to reference one of the band’s stated and apparent influences, I would describe as cleaner than Bee Thousand but far less slick than Universal Truths And Cycles.

This album is packed with memorable shout-along moments, standouts among them being in “Lights Go Out”, “Dirty Cops”, “Ghost Town,” and especially “Downhill”, with its coda of “We’re going downhill from here!” Let’s hope The Seed Of Something aren’t actually headed downhill from here. They’ve already survived a couple lineup shifts so they might well be in it for the long haul. If so, it will be very interesting indeed to see where they go.

The Seed Of Something usher the cassette tape version of this thing into the world at Vaudeville Mews on September 10, joined by Going To Grandma’s and Dhobi Flats. It can also be streamed at Bandcamp, and I presume will also be available there in download form at some point.

soccer mom cover

I’ve been saying for a while that as music scenes go, Ottumwa (in conjunction with its surrounding smaller communities) is an undiscovered gem. It’s a pretty nondescript, not particularly large town that you might otherwise overlook, and yet it’s the area that gave birth to The Eggnogs and since then has brought us Samuel Locke-Ward, She Swings She Sways, North To The Future, The War I Survived, Grand Old Lady, A Well Dressed Man, and for a time contributed a drummer to The Slats. And that’s before I even get into what Andy Koettel has been up to for the past couple decades.

Andy is a kind of musician that I also am, the kind whose ever-shifting interests lead him down a wide range of artistic tangents and diverse projects. For many years he ran the Mortville label, specializing in noisecore, avant-grind, and tardcore, in conjunction with his on-again-off-again band Captain 3 Leg, one of the most artistically adventurous and most fun bands ever to appear on the noisecore-grindcore scene, who have themselves experimented extensively with electronics, instrumentals, progressive rock, and sludge, no doubt frustrating grind/metal purists to no end and reveling in any backlash it got them.

A big part of my theory on why Ottumwa grows so much good, if often overlooked, music has to do with just the kind of town it is. If you’re from a place like Ottumwa (or even Waterloo or Cedar Falls), and you stay there, then if you keep on playing music, then you have to be in it purely for the love of music itself. Because those who are looking for money or fame or respect out of it eventually move to a city that’s either bigger (NYC, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle) or hipper (Chapel Hill, Olympia). And no disrespect to anyone who goes that route, because it’s still a hard road and you’re likely to still need that love of music to keep you motivated even then. But the people left making music in the smaller towns and cities with less of a mass-media profile are people who could really give a fuck, and as you might expect, some really interesting music can come out of that if the creative atmosphere is right. Hell, Seattle wasn’t always the Seattle we know today. Remember when the grunge blowup happened in the early ’90s, early reactions were “Seattle who?”

The Mighty Acceleratör, which also features Ottumwa math teacher and workhorse drummer Jared Merle, a.k.a. “J-Rod” a.k.a. “Grandy” a.k.a. “J. Redcorn”, who relocated to Des Moines as recently as a couple weeks ago, and Centerville guitarist, recording engineer, and Strangebird Studio proprietor Travis Atkinson who is soon to pack up his 2″ tape machine and relocate to Nashville, originally got started some years ago, then disappeared for a bit while Andy and bassist Stephen Crow went off on an instrumental doom/sludge-metal tangent with Billy Crystal Meth (not to be confused with a certain dude from Chicago who, after stumbling onto the same name, went so far as to steal a logo from one of this Billy Crystal Meth’s CD covers). Earlier this year Acceleratör reconvened, adding Atkinson and new lead vocalist Joe Brown.

So what’s The Mighty Acceleratör’s tangent? Stated quite simply it’s just good old party-hardy rock and roll. This is riffy, beer-swillin’, don’t think too hard music. It’s been described as a ’70s throwback, but really this kind of stuff has never fallen out of favor in the blue-collar towns of middle-America since that decade. If you already know of these guys and the extreme, indie, and art-rock stuff in their pasts and on their shelves, it may come as a shock to hear them working this style, and maybe even more of a shock to hear them do it this well and authentically. But for as big of music nerds as they are, these have always been a set of unpretentious dudes, and from the Soccer Mom EP and a couple live sets I’ve seen, it’s evident that they didn’t go down this route to slum it; they may love their Can and Yo La Tengo records, but their affection for this lowbrow material is equally genuine. It’s a kind of appreciation that maybe you have to be from one of those middle-America towns to really understand. Cheap beer and people you’ve been around all your life make for good times, after all. If you don’t believe me, just listen to “Shake It.”

I’ve already given this release more paragraphs than it has songs, and so far it’s mainly been expository material, but basically if you’re capable of coming down off your high horse to just rock out, there’s no good reason not to like this EP. The playing is tight but just loose enough; the guitar riffs are catchy and Atkinson’s leads are familiar but fiery; the lyrics are packed with the kind of humor everybody in the bar can get. The opening/title track is an amusing portrait of a borderline creepy obsession with the titular character; “Mustache Foam” warns of the dangers of mixing facial hair with draft beer when it comes to attracting the ladies; “Droppin’ A Load” is an honest to goodness trucker song. When was the last time you heard of somebody writing a trucker song? It’s about fucking time.

stranger ballet cover

There probably isn’t much I need to tell you about Poison Control Center’s most recent, Stranger Ballet. After all, it’s been out on Afternoon Records since early June. I usually try not to cover the same stuff a lot of other people are. I’m actually surprised not to see more press love on this album (not that it’s been ignored either), considering how deservedly well loved and respected this band is in my area, and the amount of coverage last year’s ambitious double-album Sad Sour Future got. All the lovable qualities of this group’s scrappy indie guitar sling — big old-school pop hooks, Lips nerdery, Pat Fleming’s distinctive wail (seemingly the only guy who’s not a Danielson that can pull it off properly), songs that remind you that there’s more to these guys than the rafter-hanging, upside-down guitar solo stage antics, however fun those may be; the likeability, positivity, determination — it’s all here, in a lighter dosage, easily digested in a sitting but no less satisfying, and with a noticeable amount of growth and some fresh surprises. New elements include a couple moments of Strokesy nonchalance; a few experiments and added sonic elements that work very well: a guest vocalist or two, a dab of mellotron, and a generous helping of pedal steel all over side B; and a couple really deep moments of heart, especially in the last couple songs. Lyrical elements recur like this is a concept album: born-on date, we are all stars, etc. The unifying concept it suggests is one of the relationship versus the road. It’s a well-worn subject but PCC are really experiencing it, perhaps for the first real time, as this album grew out of months of touring following the release of Sad Sour Future, itself just the first act of a period of touring nearly all of the past year up until about last weekend — so their perspective on it is fresh and firsthand. Stranger Ballet also shows that, for as audacious as Sad Sour Future was, it was only PCC hitting their stride; they’ve probably got the chops to pull off a whole career of these albums and keep us all happy and interested for years to come, if they want to. Last year’s album was ambitious in scope, but this one is ambitious in the details, and it succeeds equally well.

The second episode of Metal Up Your Tap: Des Moines Chapter was this past Friday. It’s a pretty cool event, but it does get me thinking about what defines “metal” these days. The term seems to have gotten looser than it once was. For instance, recently the organizers seemed to be trying to get Fetal Pig to open next month’s episode being headlined by Nachtmystium. I guess Dan wasn’t into the idea. I’d have been up for it, but I’m up for a lot of crazy shit if it has to do with music. Also, by the way, kudos for snagging Nachtmystium.

Anyway there’s no disputing Druids’s doom/sludge metal cred once you hear them. I like that they switch it up with a few fast songs, which makes them more varied than the typical stonery outfit. They had a bassist this time, that was new. But welcome, since it opened things up for Luke to do more guitar solos. Some really good new songs in the set.

On second was The Mighty Acceleratör, from Ottumwa, and this is the second part of my point about the fluidity of the term “metal” these days. Acceleratör play a kind of 70s throwback riff-rock, intentionally exercising little or no Sabbath influence, with songs about drinking beer, ogling women, and driving trucks. I observed that the crowd thinned out slightly for their set, but only slightly, and the people in the place were not just respectful but actually pretty enthusiastic. Accelerator’s brand of hard rock is all fun and no bullshit, but is it metal? Well if metal fans are into it, why not? Certain metalheads will also staunchly proclaim their love of Aerosmith’s Rocks, or Rainbow, after all. Plus, Andy’s guitar tone does sound almost exactly like that on Napalm Death’s From Enslavement To Obliteration — or did, as since the show he’s purchased another amp. He also used to run one of the most extreme grindcore/noisecore labels around and brought along what’s left of his distro to the show. And, The Mighty Acceleratör’s ranks include the drummer of Grand Old Lady and A Well Dressed Man.

Heaving Mass, from Chicago, gave us a solid set of heavy head-nodding midtempo power-trio doom riffage reminiscent of Crowbar and a little bit of Sleep but also with a bit of that southern feel. This was definitely shaping up to be MUYT’s “doom edition.” They also have the flyest looking t-shirts I’ve ever seen offered at a $10 price point, a gorgeous multi-color design, and if you bought one you got their CD free.

Finally, Skin Of Earth was the big surprise to me. I’m told they’re local but had never heard of them before, but heard people tell me things like “last time I saw these guys it was eight years ago.” They brought their own lighting in the form of one low-wattage floor lamp, providing an ambience that transformed the Mews into a basement show. They played epic, crushing instrumentals with lots of apocalyptic atmosphere. I’m kind of a sucker for this type of thing. That whole supposed post-rock/metal hybrid that gets called “post-metal”, I guess, but I got the feeling these guys didn’t set out to start a “post-metal band” so much as they got together and started playing/writing and this is just what came out. Anyway I don’t know what kind of scene these guys play in but I want in on it.

I’m also long overdue to write a little something about the Joe Jack Talcum show. Zach was looking a little worse for the wear many days into a tour plagued with automotive breakdowns and injuries. He did a more rock-focused one-man Coolzey set with a lot of guitar including a couple nice blues-inflected numbers, and brought up a couple of his tourmates for his classic “Old Machine.” Dan B claimed he was tired too but you definitely couldn’t tell it from The Bassturd’s set. The Samuel Locke-Ward Lo-Fi Spectacular featured Jeff Mannix on guitar, Zach on bass (which I have to say, he can really play the hell out of!) and a drum machine.

Christopher The Conquered took the unorthodox route of performing in the Mews’s foyer on an upright piano, accompanied only by Kate Kennedy on saxophone. It was an unusually low-key and intimate performance for a CtC show but went over well with those who were around for it, having a very piano-bar vibe. I was worried however as it seemed like the crowd had thinned out a lot and I really wanted Joe Jack to have a good crowd to play for.

Fortunately, such a crowd appeared. I don’t know if they started filtering in from the DJ set just ending at the Mews’s outdoor “PBR Bar” or what, but suddenly there were a lot of people around rocking out to Joe Jack Talcum And The Powders. The Powders, made up of Sam Locke-Ward on keys, Grace Locke-Ward on drums, and Rachel Feldman on bass, make a darn fine backup band for both Joe Jack’s post-Dead Milkmen tunes and the Dead Milkmen covers sprinkled into the set, some requested by the audience. In response to one showgoer’s shouts for “Nutrition,” the band gave it an off-the-cuff shot having never played it before. If they messed it up any, none of the people shouting along seemed to mind.

After the main JJT/Powders set, Joe Jack stuck around onstage for two solo acoustic encores of requests of Dead Milkmen songs, and seemed to be having a good time. It was overall one of the more fun shows I’ve been to in a while.