Iowa Music You Gotta Hear:  ‘Dream On’ by TWINS

101134804_342061003425902_8355098802595561472_nTWINS, the longstanding Cedar Valley rock band with a reputation for electrifying  power pop, took a hard turn on their latest album, Dream On. Or, rather, a softer turn.

And principal songwriter Joel Sires says it was all by design.

The new nine-song collection, officially released on June 5, dials down the electricity while pushing Sires’ acoustic guitar and lyrics to the forefront. The songs retain the hooky melodic sense of previous TWINS efforts, and the arrangements are still lush and atmospheric. But the new approach showcases a vulnerability that may have been overshadowed by the bombast of the old TWINS. The result is a delicate and sometimes haunting album that draws the listener closer, like a whisper you have to strain to hear.

“I wrote a good majority of the record alone on my acoustic and I figured the songs just translated better with the acoustic being sort of the backbone of the recorded versions,” Sires told Rock Roads. “I also specifically wanted it in the songs to make it as hard of a turn as possible from our last record, “Square America.”

“Buffalo Snow,” the first single released from the album, accurately previews what listeners can expect from much of the record. A carefully plucked figure on an acoustic guitar does most of the lifting on the introduction while the rhythm section — Luke Sires on drums and Devin Ferguson on bass — remains tastefully restrained throughout. Toby Sires’ lead guitar enriches the atmosphere without stepping on the vocal. An organ, played by newcomer Ben Randall, thickens the sound and adds warmth.

“I just wanna be your vapor trail/Follow you around like a tail,” Sires sings. 

The theme of life’s impermanence pops up again and again on the album. Sires’ lyrics make use of fleeting imagery like shooting stars and fresh-fallen snow. Blink and you’ll miss it. Or, at least, blink and it won’t be the same as it was before. The delicate arrangements enhance the ethereal, misty nature of the songwriting.

“Reminds Me of the Rose” is perhaps the high point of the album, featuring rich harmonies and a dynamic structure that climaxes with Sires chanting “You remind me of the rose” as the instruments swell around him. The song urges the listener to slow down and appreciate the miraculous beauty of the everyday, which, like the rose, never lasts long. 

Flashes of the old TWINS shine through the wintry clouds at various junctures. “So Far Gone,” the second single released ahead of the album’s debut, features a Stonsey groove that’s reinforced by an overdriven anti-solo. “Passenger,” a bouncy slice of pop rock with a singalong chorus and lyrics about “hangin’ round a burger shack,” recalls previous TWINS efforts as well.   

TWINS recorded the album at Chandler Limited in Shell Rock. Recording close to home allowed the band to stretch out and take their time, though Sires said the band worked to preserve a live feel as much as possible. 

“We have polished off the rough edges on previous records, and I knew this time I didn’t want to do that at all, if possible,” Sires said. “Because that’s the type of band we are. Sort of like Charlie Brown and the Peanuts Gang if they had a garage band.”

Dream On will be available on streaming services on June 5. Pre-order a physical copy on the TWINS Bandcamp page.


Iowa music you gotta hear: Crystal City’s ‘Three-Dimensionality’

3dimensionalityCrystal City throws a lot at the listener on their new album Three-Dimensionality.

The album’s 12 tracks experiment with crunchy rockabilly, dreamy jazz, sugary pop and even some power balladry along the way. But songwriter Dave Helmer’s creative vision combines with the band’s live energy to tie the songs together into a cohesive listening experience. The result is a dynamic and ambitious rock album that’s well worth your time.

“See Thru,” the album’s closing track, best illustrates the impressive ambition on display throughout Three-Dimensionality. The song begins with stark piano chords that give way to a funky R&B groove for a couple verses before the song soars to a jazzy guitar-driven crescendo that crashes into an ethereal fadeout in the closing seconds. Crystal City packs all that dynamism into a dense and intoxicating four-and-a-half minutes, making it the longest track on the album. Other standout tracks include forceful rocker “All Gone South” and the blissfully infectious pop tune “You in the Morning.”

Crystal City’s most distinct sonic hallmark is the way Helmer’s gruff vocals, which remind me of Mark Knopfler, mix with those of bandmate Sam Drella. At some points, Drella sounds as if she’s singing the same melodies as Helmer, giving tracks added thickness and urgency. At other points, Drella sings harmonies that add color and nuance, reinforcing the multi-dimensionality hinted at in the album’s title. Drella’s harmonies elevate the material, particularly on “Cigarettes for Breakfast,” where her “ooohs” during the verse call the to mind Kim and Kelley Deal of the Breeders.

Helmer’s lyrics often center on down-and-out characters facing up to difficult circumstances. “I ain’t got a dollar in the bank/I ain’t got a gallon in the tank,” Helmer and Drella sing on the title track. But the relentless energy of the songs inspires hope and motivation.

“I want this album to make people feel good and energized,” Helmer said in an interview. “We touch on a lot of themes people deal with on a regular basis, so I want people to feel like they’re not alone.”

This is the third album from the Iowa City-based band, following 2014’s Change and 2017’s Bartenderly. Helmer said the band recorded a handful of the album’s tracks in his home studio, while the rest were recorded at Flat Black Studios outside Iowa City. Engineer Luke Tweedy mixed the entire album, expertly handling the various configurations and approaches Crystal City utilized for the record.

Three-Dimensionality will sweep you up in its intense energy, precise musicianship and sheer ambition. The album is streaming online and is available on vinyl through Crystal City’s Bandcamp page. Crystal City will perform at the Mill in Iowa City on May 18 and at the 80/35 Music Festival in Des Moines on July 13.

Crystal City’s Sam Drella and Dave Helmer

The Top-10 Iowa musical acts you need to hear

First, a disclaimer.

Yes, this list is purely subjective. Yes, it leans heavily on guitar-driven blues, roots and rock acts. Yes, there are plenty of other Iowa artists not on this list worth your attention who are defying conventions and innovating in all kinds of genres. But sometimes you gotta plug an old guitar into a tube amp and crank that bad boy. That’s what most of this list is about.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I can confidently and righteously assert that these ten acts, without exception, absolutely thrash. All of them perform regularly across the state, too, so look up their gig schedules and catch a show! You can’t go wrong here.

twins10) TWINS – This Cedar Valley outfit cranks out an undeniably hooky flavor of pop rock that lands somewhere between the Byrds and the Replacements. Their most recent album, 2016’s Square America, deserves a place on any Iowa record collector’s shelf. The album crackles with bratty teenage attitude, clever arrangements and tight musicianship. Check out the searing guitar tones on “Hot Stepper,” the retro jangle and harmonies of “Breakin’ Up,” and the pedal steel-tinged pop punk of “Lovesick Romeo.”

pinkneighbor9) Pink Neighbor – The relatively new upstarts on the list (you might even say including them here is a sly declaration of new-classic status slipped into a list of old safe ones), Pink Neighbor hail from Grinnell. Their live show oozes highly infectious, 60’s psychedelic charm. I saw them play the opening show for last year’s Maximum Ames Music Festival and immediately fell under their spell. They’ve released a couple EPs and three singles, but I can’t wait to hear a proper full-length album from them.

rushcleveland8) The Rush Cleveland Trio – Rush Cleveland’s voice sounds like pure authenticity. He’s paid his dues with a lifetime of gigging and devotion to the guitar. Another Cedar Valley entry on the list, check out the Rush Cleveland Trio’s last two releases, American Music vols. 1 and 2. Both albums are full of blues, honky tonk and rock ‘n’ roll, stripped down to the bare essentials. When Rush sings a line like, “Liquor, lines and ladies, that’s lessons learned,” in his gravelly warble, you don’t doubt a word of it.

surf zombies7) The Surf Zombies – Brook Hoover, the Cedar Rapids guitar virtuoso who leads the Surf Zombies, taught me nearly everything I know about the guitar. I took lessons from him for about three years during high school and college. The man lives and breathes guitar, and he infuses everything he does with his relentless enthusiasm and goofy sense of humor. The Surf Zombies, a surf-rock instrumental band, provides Brook and his bandmates a platform for plenty of guitar heroics and attitude, and they’ve done a terrific job over the years carving out a unique niche in the Iowa music scene. The Surf Zombies catalog includes a handful of albums, all of which brim with classic guitar tones and interesting musical arrangements that are always catchy but never obvious. You won’t find a tighter – or weirder – band on this list.

SLB6) Strong Like Bear – This long-time Ames band includes some of my favorite human beings in the world, but that’s not why I put them on the list. SLB has existed for over a decade now, producing a solid discography of alt. rock that strikes me as a cross between the Pixies and Fleetwood Mac. The combination of influences lends the band a versatility and adventurousness that keeps each of their five albums sounding fresh. But the secret ingredient is the chemistry the band members have established through a decade-plus playing together. I highly recommend Passing Through the Waves, the band’s latest album, released in early March.

mattwoods5) Matt Woods – One of the finest blues guitar pickers the state has produced, Matt Woods has certainly put in the reps. The lanky lefty has produced a consistently excellent discography of full-band and solo work over the years. Two common denominators tie all of his music together: his impeccable fretwork and his gruff vocals. His 2018 album Tired & Dirty casts life in rural Iowa squarely in the blues tradition. And anyone who’s suffered through a Midwestern winter can relate to the white-knuckle thrill of 2015’s “Snow Drivin.” Contender for the most Iowa song lyric of all time: “It keeps on snowin’ like a sonofabitch, and I can’t tell the edge of the gravel from the bottom of a ditch. Snow drivin!”

4) Brother Trucker – On Brother Trucker’s most recent album 5, a song titled “Bar Fight” leads into the next track, called “Who Called the Cops.” And that’s a pretty good indication of what you get with Brother Trucker: a bunch of rugged Americana rockers about misfits and outlaws. Principal songwriter Andy Fleming possesses a terrific eye for lyrical detail, and the band raises hell with the best of them. Fleming is one of Iowa’s hardest gigging singer-songwriters, but don’t sleep on keyboardist Matt Jesson when he takes lead vocals on “Powderfinger.”

whitmore3) William Elliott Whitmore – I first saw William Elliott Whitmore at the Maintenance Shop in Ames back when I was a sophomore at Iowa State, most likely 2005 or 2006. His voice alone stopped me in my tracks, and his rendition of “Ain’t No Sunshine” remains etched in my memory as one of the most powerful musical displays I’ve witnessed. Since then, the great Iowa troubadour has been writing, recording and touring relentlessly. His most recent album, Kilonova, came out on Bloodshot Records, the scrappy Chicago indie responsible for some of my favorite alt-country of the last decade. His smoky blend of folk, blues and country all wrapped up in a punk rock attitude and old-soul vocal delivery is absolutely essential listening for Iowa music fans. Whitmore’s side project with Dave Zollo, Middle Western, is worth your time too!

pietabrown2) Pieta Brown – Iowa City-based Pieta Brown is the one artist on this list I have never seen live, but I’ve listened to both of her most recent albums – Paradise Outlaw and Postcards – extensively. Her crystal-clear vocals, her literary-yet-immediate songwriting and the haunting atmospherics of her recordings combine to give her work a quiet, swirling depth that’s easy to get lost in. In an interview, Brown explains that the inspiration for “Rosine,” my favorite composition of hers, came to her in a dream about Bill Monroe. The more I thought of it, the more a dream about the ghost of one of Appalachia’s greatest musicians seems like the perfect image to accompany Pieta Brown’s music.

joe and vicki1) Joe and Vicki Price – I’ve often heard people describe Robert Johnson’s guitar playing as if it sounds like two guitarists rather than just one. I’d argue that Iowa blues legends Joe and Vicki Price sound like two guitars being played by a single, unified mind – with tone that would make Hound Dog Taylor blush. And their live show is an absolute joy to behold. Their warmth and humor draw the audience in to make everyone feel like they’re at a party with all their best friends. I never tire of watching the way Joe stomps and slides his feet around with all those irresistible rhythms. Listen to “High Blood Pressure” from their 2015 album Night Owls to get a sense of what I’m talking about.

Maximum Ames Music Festival: The most DIY punk rock thing I do

If you’re reading this, then you’re most likely a music fan living somewhere in or near Iowa. Or, you’re my mom or my wife or a friend reading this blog out of some sense of obligation. In either case, I want you to read carefully. Please go to your calendar or your planner or whatever app you use on your phone to keep track of all your plans and reserve the four days from Sept. 5 through Sept. 8. Plan to be in Ames during that time with your gnarliest pair of party pants because the 2019 Maximum Ames Music Festival is going to change your life.

It’s already changed mine, and it’s still six months away.

Lionessa performs at London Underground last Sunday during the Maximum Ames/Ames Pride date reveal party.

Last year, I volunteered to handle some of the promotion, communications and social media for the 2018 Maximum Ames Music Festival, then in its eighth year. The experience turned out to be one of the most inspiring, life-affirming grassroots efforts to which I’ve ever contributed, and this year’s festival promises to be even better. We just announced the date of the 2019 festival last Sunday at London Underground on Main Street in Ames. It was a ferocious party with Free the Snakes and Lionessa providing live music (look them up!), but that’s a story for another time.

Let’s talk about why the Maximum Ames Music Festival is so important to me.

Reading Michael Azerrad’s ‘Our Band Could Be Your Life’ during my high school years changed my perspective of rock ‘n’ roll in some pretty radical ways. Before that book, I thought playing rock music was only for stars like Bruce Springsteen or Mick Jagger.

But reading stories about the do-it-yourself attitude that pervaded underground punk and indie rock throughout the 1980s opened my eyes to a whole new approach. Reading about straight-edge punks at Dischord folding and gluing their own record sleeves, or a student at Evergreen State College in Olympia putting together cassettes of avant-garde acts and self-publishing a fanzine, made me realize you don’t have to be Mick Jagger to make rock and roll. In fact, it might just be that average citizens – schmucks like me with jobs and bills to pay – expressing themselves through music might be a more revolutionary and subversive act than anything those celebrity musicians ever did.

That belief inspired me to volunteer to help organize last year’s Maximum Ames Music Festival. The festival, held last September, hosted more than 60 acts in a dozen venues near downtown Ames. The festival also synced up with Ames Pridefest, which occurred Sept. 29 in downtown Ames. The confluence of events reinforced the Maximum Ames mission of “providing a safe, inclusive environment that fosters creativity and understanding through music and art.” It’s precisely the sort of event our communities need nowadays, with division cutting so deeply and compassion for one another in such short supply.

Free the Snakes performs during the date reveal party.

I spent several months leading up to the festival planning media relations and promotional efforts, and I coordinated with a team of six other volunteers to take care of all the necessary arrangements to make an event like that happen, from fundraising to booking acts to making sure all the venues had functioning PA systems. It struck me at every meeting that all seven of us in the core team were all pretty much regular folks who just happen to think putting on a music festival in our small Iowa town enriches the entire community and advances the crucial values of inclusion, acceptance and creativity. More than any other music-related endeavor I’ve undertaken, volunteering for the Maximum Ames Music Festival made me feel like I was walking in the footsteps of the DIY heroes featured in ‘Our Band Could Be Your Life.’

And the festival itself is always a blast. Past acts have included the Mountain Goats, Meat Puppets, Wanda Jackson and Lavender Country. The Zombies, who were just inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, are Max Ames alums. Last year’s lineup covered a dizzying range of genres, from guitar-heavy rock to hip hop to jazz to blues.

If any of this appeals to you, I invite you to attend and participate in a truly awesome community experience. If you’re a musician, apply to play at the festival. If you’d like to volunteer, we’ll need people to man the doors at venues, to deliver payments to the acts and photographers to document the experience. You don’t have to be a rock star to get involved. In fact, you don’t have to have any experience whatsoever in the music biz. All we’re looking for is a positive attitude and some DIY spirit.

I hear a lot of folks use slogans like ‘eat local’ or ‘shop local.’ Absolutely, let’s do that. But, while we’re at it, let’s rock local too. And remember! #MAMF9 Sept. 5-8!