Category Archives: Album Reviews

Peaks and Valleys–The Sapwoods

                                      Cover art by Dan Peterson.

Peaks and Valleys, the new record by the Sapwoods is likely one of the best new records you’ll hear this year.  Anchored by singer-songwriter Justin Swafford and guitarist David Suchan, the Sapwoods went through a bit of turnover after 2012’s Electric Glowbefore the lineup stabilized with Miranda Peyton on keys, Brian Speer on bass and Derrick Cook on drums.

The opener, “Relax, Be Real, Be Yourself” is a hard-charging Tom Petty-style number that sets the table lyrically, as other titles include “Let It Go,” “It’s Alright, Close Your Eyes”.  “Two Wounded Soldiers” and “Steady on the Breaks” also fall into the it’s-gonna-be-alright category.  Lyrics can be hard to decipher (they’re available on Bandcamp), but tend to be kind of oblique anyway.  “Leopard tongue speaks it’s alright” for instance.

The band hits quite a few different stylistic notes, from the opening rocker to the light reggae lilt of “Are You Lightning?” to the sprightly but melancholy breakup song “Serve You Right” to the spacy “Perdition”.  “Back To You” would fit right into one of the old Nuggets compilations.  That said, Swafford’s vocals pretty often suggest Tom Petty, with a hint of Jeff Tweedy.  “Drifters” even borrows some of the rhythms’s of Petty’s “Hometown Blues.”

                                      Photo by Sean Adams-Hiett.

Peaks and Valleys is absolutely worth your attention.  You can stream it on ReverbNation or Bandcamp, where it’s for sale.  You can also connect via their YouTube channel or FaceBook.  Catch them a one of their upcoming shows, and you can buy a physical CD.

–John Hiett

Change — Crystal City


Crystal City‘s transition’s complete.  Former acoustic duo Dave Helmer and Sam Drella have added a band and released Change, their second record, following an eponymous EP.  Brock Muench adds bass and Blake Oleson (since replaced by Dan Peterson) drums.  Dave, a gifted writer, also sings and plays guitar.  The lovely and talented Sam sings (she could sometimes be mixed a little louder), whistles and adds the occasional trumpet part.  Dan designed the album cover, which, as you can see, is awesome.

Their voices go really well together and the band has great dynamics (fast/slow, loud/soft).  Hooks are everywhere.   Eleven songs last just 32 minutes, so nobody’s jamming much here, but when Dave rips a guitar solo, he makes it stick.  Change is stylistically varied, from the punk attack of The Best Way to the moody dissonance of Tangled Down to the soaring glory of Waiting.  Looking for a single?  Try Dynamite.

If there’s a theme in Dave’s songs, it might be mild relationship anxiety.  He’s an easy  going guy tho, and copious amounts of cheap beer seems to cure most ills.

Well I know that I treated you bad
I left you down and I know I left you sad
And I’ve apologized about a thousand times
What can I do to make things right?  

You can hear or buy Change here, follow them on Facebook, or catch them Friday night at Gabe’s.  Physical CD’s will be available at shows a few weeks from now.


— John Hiett

We the People: The Muckrockers on the State of the Union

Given the recombinant nature of Iowa City bands and the general talent level, it’s probably nuts to label any new band a super-group.  However . . .

Scott Cochran has been writing great songs for a long time now, polishing his craft with two excellent bands, Slew Grass and Flannel.  He’s given a lot of thought to the our national political/economic situation, and written a coherent group of songs from a radical, patriotic, populist perspective.  Their Facebook description serves as a mission statement.  “Muckrockers are a group of working class musician-citizens aiming to illuminate and eliminate the corporate stranglehold on our government and our lives.”

To a lot of eyes

Greed and lies

Killed the American dream


Economic inequality, chronic unemployment, and a seemingly hostile government are all weighty topics, and if you want to engage an audience while addressing them, you’d better include a hefty dose of fun.  Mission accomplished on that front.

These songs, some of which you might recognize from recent Slew Grass shows, range from fist-shaking, storm-the-barricades anthems (Great Depression, Kick the Power Out) to sad, thoughtful ballads (Soldier, That Shit’ll Kill Ya).  Paris Hilton is a honky tonk story song about a guy headed to DC to see about getting his job back from Mexico.   Matt Kearney performs The Contract as a sardonic monolog over a rocking soundtrack.  How Long ends with a children’s chorus that recalls the Clash’s Career Opportunities.

The exhuberant chorus from Great Depression sounds like a cross between John Prine’s Spanish Pipedream and the Mermaid Avenue records.

“Burn all your money.
Pack up your kids
Better find your religion.
Better get off the grid.
Better learn your constitution.
Someone grab a gun.
There are people goin’ on the run”

You can hear this, and a couple other songs on the Muckrockers’ Facebook page.  (*WARNING*  Earworm alert)

Tom Spielbauer (Porch Builder) plays guitar, banjo and fiddle.   Agit-rockers Matt and Jamie Kearney (Pigs and Clover) sing backup vocals.  Matt adds bass, harps, banjo and guitar.  Jamie plays her purple sparkly cocktail drum kit.  Tho not on the record, April Dirks Bihun now plays mandolin with the band.   Dustin Duwa recorded, mixed, mastered, and generally engineered.

We the People engages with both the heart and the head. Passionate and thoughtful, it deserves a huge audience. You can buy it here.

-John Hiett


Das Thunderfoot’s Pudding Popper Album Review


Das Thunderfoot’s soon-to-be-released debut, Pudding Popper consists of 13 high energy tracks, full of creative (and often comical) lyrical content, dynamic shifts, layers of heavy rock riffs phasing in and out of rhythmically tight, percussive bass lines and drum beats.  Overall I found Pudding Popper to be highly entertaining with tons of replay value.

Many live performances and albums, delivered by perfectly talented groups, bring an appreciation for the music in the finite moments of listening but will often leave me with no discernible or tangible recollection of the individual songs I’ve just experienced. Das Thunderfoot is definitely not one of those groups. After my first run through of Pudding Popper, I found myself replaying catchy chorus’s in my head, singing words like “poopflake,” along to the music and thoughtlessly cracking one more beer over the advisable line for being clear and present at work the next morning. “Skull and Bones,” (Track 6) is a great example of a song that’s an instant classic, musically conjuring images of an ancient galley, swaying drunkenly, with timbers creaking as the ship heaves on massive ocean swells and the pirate-oriented lyrics leave no question about the nature of this modern sea chantey.

A reoccurring song crafting formula seems to come to life throughout the album without detracting from each song’s individual nature.  AJ Wessling will often start with a dexterous bass lines, reminiscent of Primus.  Nate Soukup will add layers of subtle guitar until he erupts with chord-heavy riffs and cleverly delivered lyrics that display an impressive vocal range.  Alfred Mannix lays down perfect rhythms over every track, never missing and giving each song exactly the beat it needs. Throughout the duration of Pudding Popper, it becomes quite clear that these guys have some long-developed musical synergy, which only adds to the overall enjoyment of the album.

Be sure to pick up a copy of Pudding Popper at Das Thunderfoot’s album release party Saturday, November 23rd 2013 at the Iowa City Yacht Club and you can be in front of the stage singing along by the next show.

Album Review by Eric Dirks on behalf of Iowa City Music Scene

Zeta June - Iowa City Jam Rock - Photo by Pete Lower taken of Zeta June's Album Zeta June

Zeta June self titled album review

Zeta June - Iowa City Jam Rock - Photo From Zeta June's Facebook Page
Zeta June – Iowa City Jam Rock – Photo From Zeta June’s Facebook Page

After winning the annual Iowa City Yacht Club battle of the bands in September of 2012, Zeta June used their hard earned studio time to hammer out ten original tracks with long time Iowa City expert engineer John Svec (Earthtone studio).  Resulting in a multi-hued, scintillating body of work that deftly navigates through numerous tone, tempo and rhythmic changes. 

The group consists of four talented and musically diverse individuals; Porter Hand (vocals, guitar, keys, mandolin), Mitch Hruby (bass, vocals, thunder tube), Ian Crawford (guitar, vocals) and Cody Kuhens (drums, auxiliary percussion).

As a self-proclaimed jam band, Zeta June, seemingly, has no apparent desire to stick to any pre-conceived commonalities of the genre. Highly original songs cover a wide musical spectrum and they display this eclectic sensibility by incorporating elements of funk, reggae, jazz, riff-heavy rock, tonally interesting guitar melodies, heavy walls of slow-moving psychedelic noise and, dare I say, even a splash of traditional folk.  Abrupt feel changes at dynamically high points are a signature of Zeta June, adding a progressive element to this amalgamation of genre-bending creativity.  Extended instrumental sections throughout show polished musicianship and an ability to defy conventional song structures. Unique ideas and instrumentation are deftly woven in each tune and no two tracks sound the same.  Overall this album is a piece that covers a lot of ground and hits on many different levels. 

Considering that this is their first album, I have no doubt that Zeta June will continue to push boundaries and defy convention.  I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

Album Review by Eric Dirks on behalf of Iowa City Music Scene

Email [email protected] to have your album or live performance reviewed.