Looking back on this decade, what stands out most is not war, terrorism or recession. It's something more intractable, in a way more disturbing. It's how Americans fell apart from each other.
-- Rekha Basu, Des Moines Register, Dec. 30, 2009
I've seen a lot of looking back lately. We've had lists of the top everything from the decade. We've had lists of the top everything from the year. I've seen more than one joke about top 10 lists of top 10 lists. "Lists sure seem to be popular," the Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz tweeted today. I'm sure famous people died in 2008, too, but I've learned more in the past few weeks about the famous people who died in 2009 than I will ever need to know again.

I haven't seen as much looking forward. Sure, some people are making new year's resolutions they'll soon break, just like every year. And a new poll shows Americans are more optimistic about next year; if the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, then perhaps that positive sentiment will prove itself self-fulfilling. What, however, do we have to expect from the coming decade? It's impossible to predict the type of events that for many defined the Zeroes-- war, terrorism, recession-- but will the main trend Basu cites persist? Will Americans continue to fall apart from each other? Is entropy inevitable?

I dunno. But here are some top-of-the-head, totally arguable, probably embarrassing thoughts I was sharing over dinner the other night. About music, because that's what I'm (again, totally arguably) qualified to write about. Can we stipulate that in the 1990s, indie rock was a relatively apolitical affair, characterized by Gen X irony and detachment? You weren't going to find Beck, Pavement, or Sebadoh at a Bill Clinton rally. As recently as the early 2000s, people from almost anywhere on the political spectrum could dig some of the most indie-acclaimed albums-- although even then records like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot were pretty consciously challenging not only the major labels, but also traditional radio listeners.

At some point, however, I feel like indie's anti-corporate story became simply an anti-Bush story. More and more artists and albums took a political stand, or at least gestured toward politics-- whether the 2004 Vote for Change Tour or vaguely war-themed albums like the Flaming Lips' Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots or Radiohead's unsubtly titled Hail to the Thief. For some (probably indefensible) reason I feel like this cross-identification of "indie" music with progressive politics peaked around the time of Arcade Fire's Funeral, if not so much because of anything in the music then because of the way countless people first heard about it: "Fear is wholly pervasive in American society, but we manage nonetheless to build our defenses in subtle ways-- we scoff at arbitrary, color-coded "threat" levels; we receive our information from comedians and laugh at politicians," wrote online-friend-of-Des-Noise Dave Moore in the first paragraph of his widely read Pitchfork review. The same year, a rapper named Kanye West rose up in indie circles in a way few recent rappers had-- it's embarrassing and probably more potentially more self-destructive than worthwhile to admit, but I, for one, let peer pressure sway me into including his debut album on my year-end list (I felt guilty because I had fallen out of touch with recent rap-- despite growing up on the stuff... and hearing journalism professors say rap coverage was a good career move for would-be music critics). I doubt I was the only one. Eventually, West would cement his indie cred with a few famous words: "George Bush doesn't care about black people." From there, if "indie" meant anything, it came to mean "stuff left-leaning people like and people who are right-leaning probably won't."

Now, as the decade ends, I wonder whether we've reached a crossroads. Barack Obama is president. Prominent critics have declared the death of hip-hop. The snake of contrarian thinking has eaten its tail; we've gone from the unironic revival of Journey to multiple articles calling for a reappraisal of Creed. Meanwhile, the actual death of Michael Jackson-- plus the popularity of the Beatles' "Rock Band" video game-- has left many of us craving the universal icons of the old monoculture. To that end, there's already been a groundswell of critical support around Taylor Swift, an artist who is nominally mainstream-country, a genre that is traditionally conservative (and which indie had been slowest to embrace). This is a change. That her big moment this year came in a kerfuffle with West is only appropriate and symbolic.

More and more of the new music I hear every day seems content to connect with only tiny, self-congratulatory niches. That's the way all media have gone in the past decade-- you read the blogs you like, watch the TV news you agree with, and you tune out whatever disagrees with your worldview. There's no turning back the clock. Nor should there be. But my hope for the 2010s is that more artists will see the value of reaching outside of a small coterie of fans-- fans who devour dozens if not hundreds of albums a year but devote their lives to precious few-- and start truly touching people who maybe have tastes, beliefs, and backgrounds that are different from theirs, but who will maybe appreciate their music more fully. You know the great Oscar Wilde quote: "A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing." Let's work on reaching some people who couldn't rate an album on a 101-point scale if it killed them, who could barely put together a top five list let alone a top 50 list, but who know what a song is really worth.

So my hope for us as music fans is the same as Basu's hope for us as citizens: that we'll be able to find some common ground. That, even if we end up differing, we'll at least be communicate with each other. If you believe great music can touch what is fundamentally human in each of us-- and I do-- then why close off that possibility by speaking to ever-smaller, arbitrary niches who will download your music for free, listen to it once, form an opinion, and then move on to the next big thing?

In 2020, everybody will appear on at least one top 10 list.



Cursive have been impressing a cultish following with their emotive, literary-minded indie since 2000 concept album Domestica, if not earlier. They're from Omaha, which in better weather would be just a little more than a couple of hours away (I've only been there once, so I'm relying heavily on Google Maps here). And they're on the prominent Saddle Creek label, whose biggest name, Bright Eyes, I've been listening to since downloading "Something Vague" off of a defunct file-sharing service called AudioGalaxy. So I should definitely know them a lot better. But they should probably know Des Moines a lot better, too. It's not that there wasn't a strong turnout for their show at Vaudeville Mews on Saturday night-- there was, if not quite a sellout-- and if the crowd was pretty subdued, you could blame it on the early set time (the show was all-ages) or just, as my friend Tom at The Great Pumpkin blog tweeted, your typical intent Cursive crowd.

Still, it felt like Cursive frontman Tim Kasher, now 35, sensed the unnecessary distance, like a Dickens character realizing he should've spent more Christmases with his kind-hearted nephew. Or cousin. "I guess we're cousins," Kasher remarked at one point. "We should be sitting around eating hamsteaks." (My notes are a little less clear on the second half of that quote.) One reason Cursive and Des Moines might not be on a closer basis is the customary three-year gaps between albums, with various side projects in between; another is that Kasher moved to Los Angeles to become a screenwriter and now lives in Montana, as Joe Lawler reported in the Register.

Anyway, the crowd seemed particularly tall for this show, so I didn't get a great look at the stage-- but you know that already from the latest bad iPhone photo (the awesomely retro Polaroids of the future!). The set was understandably tilted toward songs from Cursive's new album, Mama, I'm Swollen, which didn't blow me away, but they still definitely sounded like a solid, practiced band, addressing weighty topics-- in one lyric, God was laughing down; in another, Kasher mused whether we were "better off as animals." "Peter Pan syndrome," he told CityView's Michael Swanger, is one of the record's themes. The band also played The Ugly Organ's "A Gentleman Caller," for one. And they closed with my favorite song of the night, Domestica's cataclysmically throat-rending "The Casualty," which was the favorite of other people I talked to, too.

See you next holiday season?



There's a scene in Here Come the Regulars: How to Run a Record Label on a Shoestring Budget where a band rejects author Ian Anderson's label because he can't offer them enough distribution. "I later found out that they thought I wasn't cool," the young Afternoon Records founder, One for the Team frontman, and MFR blogger writes. "Ouch." There's not much about his book-- a thorough, unpretentious, not-afraid-to-be-servicey guide to how one teenager started his own label and found a career in music-- that could be considered "cool." Except for the fact that he has written it. And unless you're one of the kids who could use Anderson's friendly advice to keep your artistic dreams grounded in practical reality.

I've been planning for a few months now to type up some kind of epic blog post talking about late, great Des Moines Register columnist Rob Borsellino's "So I'm talkin' to this guy..." anthology, Gawker Media reporter John Cook's Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records (co-authored with label heads Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance), and Anderson's book. The idea was going to be to look at Des Moines from a newcomer's perspective and consider ways that we could learn from Merge and Anderson in trying to develop a thriving music community. Well, I gave my borrowed copy of Borsellino's wonderful book back to my aunt, and my mom hasn't finished reading the copy I send to her in Georgia via Amazon, so I can't refer to it specifically. And reading Our Noise made me realize that a lot of Merge's rise-- and even Afternoon's smaller-scale success-- is inextricably tied up in the particular circumstances, work ethic, and dedication of its founders. But I still think there are some lessons to be learned.

For those who don't know, Borsellino was a talented reporter from the Bronx who says he came to Iowa for love-- his wife, current Register columnist Rekha Basu, had gotten a job here. His prose has a terse, hardboiled style. But it's all the more heart-rending for it. He was the East Coast tough guy on the outside, the bleeding-heart softie on the inside, and he had the chops as a writer to hit all of those notes perfectly. He died in 2006 from Lou Gehrig's disease, the same illness that took my grandmother when I was younger. I'm from a little foothill town in Northern California originally, so New York City was an exotic place to me when I moved there in 2004. But I got to know it well enough to understand how Borsellino might've been feeling when he first set foot in Des Moines. That was a long time ago, too, before the rebirth of the downtown area. In New York, it's almost rude to show up to something promptly; in Iowa, Borsellino notices, if you're five minutes late people will call you wondering what they've done to offend you. The main view that I get of Iowa through Borsellino is of a place where people are stubbornly practical. Sometimes they mistake what's practical for what's in their self-interest, but most of the time, people here are just practical in a positive, commonsense, and often warm-hearted way. That's what I get from Borsellino, anyway.

Music isn't practical. You could almost say that's the point. Sure, it can make you feel better, take you outside of yourself, make you see the world a different way, help you meet other people and understand yourself, or just make life slightly less boring. But to say any of this is practical would be like suggesting that dancing is good because it burns calories. Then again, look at Omaha. People there might root for a different college football team, but they're still from the same general part of the Midwest. It's still pretty much an insurance town, which again wouldn't necessarily suggest a huge interest in anything that challenges the status quo. And yet Omaha produced one of the biggest do-it-yourself music success stories from the past 15 years: the rise of Bright Eyes and the Saddle Creek label. Long-running Omaha band Cursive will be playing at Vaudeville Mews on Saturday night. (Ladd, are there still tickets? I thought I was gonna be out of town, but there was a change in plans.)

Merge Records and Afternoon Records are vastly different in size, but their books (both extremely worthwhile if you've gotten this far-- Merge has more pictures and history, Afternoon is more of a how-to) offer similar lessons for budding music impresarios. In short: Start small, put out records you and your friends actually like, don't be too cool to be savvy about the business side of things, build a fan community, spend money conservatively, don't expand until the market basically forces it. Merge, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, started as a 7" label centering around its founders' band, Superchunk, and has since gone on to release beloved albums by the Magnetic Fields, Neutral Milk Hotel, Lambchop, Spoon, Camera Obscura, and-- probably most famously-- the Arcade Fire. Of course, there was a whole "scene" going on in North Carolina back in the early days, but that doesn't mean one couldn't start here, too-- if enough bands want to play and enough people want to come out and support them. It can't hurt that Merge's home base, Chapel Hill, is a college town; Minneapolis-based Afternoon has that going for it, too. I kinda doubt the music-loving kids out in Grinnell are going to be coming downtown for their live shows anytime soon (someday, maybe?!), but with Iowa State in Ames, Drake right here in Des Moines, and plenty of young professionals working downtown, we have more going for us as a live music city than a lot of places. Everybody from Jens Lekman and Jonathan Richman to Will Oldham, Joanna Newsom, and Devendra Banhart to the Decemberists and Fall Out Boy has played Vaudeville Mews. So we get some good shows. And we have the 80/35 festival, which has been bringing us acts as diverse as the Flaming Lips, Public Enemy, Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, Man Man, Cymbals Eat Guitars, Broken Social Scene, Tilly & the Wall, Matisyahu, Ben Harper, and many others. (I should note: I'll be volunteering a little bit to help out with booking for this year's 80/35, so I'm not totally an objective observer on that front anymore.)

All right, this blog post is already getting too long. Are you starting to see why that epic I had been planning never quite materialized? To build on the music community that's already developing in Des Moines, people really just need to keep forming bands, keep going to shows, make friends with other like-minded people and keep spreading the word. We have nothing to lose but boredom.

a way to escape or a way to wage war? dream, reality or simply something else? well, it really doesn't matter as long as it's yours.



Let's say you're in a band. From Seattle. You've been on tour, in a van, for nine weeks.

You tell us this.

You're playing for a small crowd of several totally fired up teenagers, a guy who looks like he might be one of their parents, a bartender, a door person, presumably a sound person upstairs, and me. Your style of music is a slightly listless non-update of the Strokes' rock-is-back tautness and Dandy Warhols' decades-dulled Mick Jagger impressions.

You have one (pretty catchy) song that people like in Seattle, France, and Chicago. No place else.

You tell us this, too.

You're a power trio-- except for a ski-capped fourth person hidden on the side of the stage as she sort of half-heartedly bangs at the tambourine.

You played here at least once before. Last time, you told jokes poking fun at the town you were playing.

This time, you start to speak. You say something like: "Uhh, could you make this town a little less big? I think more bands would feel comfortable coming through here if you did. There are too many people here. Like, when we drove into town I lost my 3G. Also, saw lots of homeless people."

Seattle is bigger than here, it's true. But you're playing here.

"[Something about corn!]" "[Something about sexytime with cornfed women!]" (Cheers from the few, super excited male teens!) (The even fewer, somewhat less excited female teens are probably underage, ya perv!) "[More banter about corn and cornfed women!!]"

Hey, when I have a band can I play the Crocodile in Seattle and talk about all that RAIN you guys have? And grunge? And heroin addicts? (BTW I still recommend local people check out Seattle/New York radio station KEXP, especially DJ Shani. John in the Morning works well in this time zone, too.)

Anyway, not trying to be a jerk any more than necessary on this blog, just want to be honest even though I'm blogging about shows in a city that could still use more shows. I was at Vaudeville Mews again last night not for the Blakes, but for Montreal's Winter Gloves, who I only caught for a couple of songs (an opener canceled so they started early) but thought sounded pretty good. Melodic, collegiate, slightly twee, keyboard-upholstered indie pop. They record for Paper Bag (Sally Shapiro, CFCF). The lead singer reminded me not in a bad way of the bartender at the restaurant we used to go to the most often back in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn.

Sunday night I went to a listening party at the Lift for the new cassette-only third album from Des Moines-Minneapolis duo Olives, entitled Trembles (Moon Glyph). Comprising Ross Nerving and label chief Steve Rosborough, Olives do sort of a Liars-y lo-fi/noise art rock thing. Their previous tape was apparently inspired by Jorge Luis Borges' The Book of Imaginary Beings. Their latest has booming vocals, occasionally, kind of looming in the shadows, plus some shrill and metallic guitars. Trembles is a surprisingly broad-ranging listen, with funereal tribal drones and spacey drilling guitar figures and dystopian chants but also a delicately gorgeous ambient/electronic track. Olives say the effort "is an act of hymnal disassembly ... a subversion of traditional spiritual song structures and lyrical tropes." But even more than, say, such experimental noise dudes as Excepter, who I really like when they're on, these guys don't sound as pretentious as all that. They sound like they're having a blast. Their album is still goofy enough to include a line that at least SOUNDS LIKE this post's title. Comes in a limited run of 300. It wasn't martini night!

Download "Michael 'Dracula' Goldberg" by Olives as a free mp3 here.

REMINDER: Cursive on Dec. 12 at the Vaud!



A few notes on English band Fuck Buttons (great music, lousy name), who played at Grinnell College the other night. It was my first time seeing a show there. The venue is like the basement of this dorm, and college kids-- smart, independent-minded ones-- are around being college kids. Pretty energetic vibe, pretty intimate. And get this: Show started on time! So I missed opening Brooklyn drone-rockers Growing, which, ugh, sorry. Fuck Buttons duo Andrew Hung and Benjamin John Power stand across a table full of electronic equipment from each other, like they're playing air hockey. Their sound, especially on new album Tarot Sport, if you'll let me be overly reductive here, is all at once noisy, pretty, and has thundering dance beats. Vocals are distorted beyond comprehension through kids' toy microphones. They brushed off a couple of equipment malfunctions, humbly keeping their cool, and I think everybody went most nuts for 2008 debut album Street Horrsing's "Sweet Love for Planet Earth", though I might be remembering wrong-- they were going nuts a lot, at least in the middle where I was. I did overhear great chatter, just typical stuff about classes and relationship problems. I'm told the crowd was wilder for Liars, but I'll definitely be back to find out how other shows compare.

Tuesday night I saw the Athens, Ga., band Modern Skirts, who'd previously been at the 80/35 Festival here this summer. I didn't take notes as much-- "Can't tell you more than you already know," I remember him singing-- but yeah, they put on a good show (obviously, I decided to see them a second time!). More of a tense, rhythmic style of indie rock, kept reminding me of Spoon or White Rabbits. I remember at one point the singer saying he didn't expect anyone to be there, so it was cool that a decent audience came to the show. "Please, I'm beggin ya please." Went to Fong's Pizza afterward.

MARK YOUR CALENDARS: One of my favorite new-ish bands, Philly's A Sunny Day in Glasgow, will be playing at Vaudeville Mews on March 4. Any readers happen to catch them in Iowa City over the weekend?

Sorry to Young Republic, who I'd e-mailed with but couldn't get out to see Wednesday night. How was it?


You know who first told me I should write for Pitchfork? A guy from a John Mayer message board. His user name involved the word "Scabs." He was only there because of his girlfriend-- then a proud GAP employee and now, as I understand, married to someone she met through the online Mayer fan community (she is probably typing a hilariously furious response to this post right now, but I hope not). Scabs absolutely worshiped indie-centric icons like Blake Schwarzenbach, Super Furry Animals, and Sigur Ros. A couple of years later-- when Mayer's sophomore album, Heavier Things, came out-- I still wasn't writing for Pitchfork. But I did contribute a typically overwrought, generally favorable review to an amateur online zine. Scabs snapped off a scathing e-mail: "You have a bright future writing for Rolling Stone." He meant it as an insult.

Mayer doesn't need critics. He needs them less than any other new artist or group to come up in the current decade, as far as I can tell. He doesn't make "difficult" music that you need someone more knowledgeable to explain to you, and he doesn't make simplistic music that you need a kid or someone who can think like one to explain to you. As Robert Christgau, the Dean of Critics, observed last year (the last time I wrote at length about Mayer), the soft-rock singer, guitarist, and songwriter has generally been ignored by the big indie websites. At this point, even longtime champion Rolling Stone has turned its back on Mayer. The venerable magazine went out of its way to rip on a pre-release fan video of one song from the 32-year-old's just-released fourth album, Battle Studies, and assigned the record itself the lowest rating yet for a new Mayer studio outing: three stars. The ambivalent appraisals in Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, and USA Today all read like they're working from the same talking points. There are two Mayers, each contends. Both Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly say one of these Mayers has a "furrowed" "brow" of some sort, possibly a "middlebrow." Which is not to be confused with a unibrow.

It's been said the Sex Pistols considered their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction important enough not to attend. Does the indie/poptimist web find Mayer important enough to ignore? Nowadays, I could point you to plenty of sharp critics who love Tayor Swift ("Half of My Heart", her Fleetwood Mac-easy sort of half-love song with Mayer, is the second- or third-best song on Battle Studies), Kanye West (he collaborated with Mayer on "Bittersweet"), Jay-Z (he brought Mayer out for a blazing solo during a recent Madison Square Garden performance and has also endorsed Grizzly Bear), Fall Out Boy (a "Beat It" cover they recorded with Mayer hit #19 on the Billboard Hot 100), Paramore (Mayer has performed with them and praised lead singer Hayley Williams' voice in a blog post), Passion Pit (Mayer co-signed "Moth's Wings" on May 5), Coldplay (Mayer was interpolating "Wooden House" before I ever went out and wasted 15 bucks on Parachutes), the Roots' ?uestlove (he played on Heavier Things' best song, "Clarity"), the Killers, Muse, even hair metal, Disney teen-pop, Creed, or whatever Sarah Palin likes. Maroon 5 get Of Montreal remixes. Norah Jones collaborates with Okkervil River's Will Sheff. The critic Carl Wilson has written a brilliant book about Celine Dion. Mayer used to cover Radiohead's "Kid A" and interpolate Daft Punk's "One More Time" (he was playing Daft Punk for the acoustic-rock kids in June 2001, James Murphy!) and walk onstage to the Avalanches. But so what?

When intellectual-type critics do write about Mayer, there's usually a whole heap of personality-based disdain. "John Mayer is a douchebag," writes Jody Rosen, Rolling Stone's Battle Studies reviewer, in a Slate debate with Jonah Weiner over the album's first single, "Who Says"-- and Rosen's in the "pro" camp! The New York Times' Jon Caramanica leads his recent piece with an expurgated quote that basically tells us the same thing: "'I should be having sex with more girls.' This is what John Mayer concluded, using slightly more colorful language, last Sunday night at his anonymously modern apartment in SoHo." Then there was the headline on my college newspaper's review of Mayer major-label debut Room for Squares: "If you like bad music, you'll love John Mayer"-- do you think the word "douchebag" (or a more 2001 equivalent like "tool") was running through that guy's mind? Christgau has suggested such dismissive attitudes might have something to do with Room for Squares' foreplay-themed hit, "Your Body Is a Wonderland", which, fair enough-- a friend recently told me songs like "Wonderland" make girls all "tingly," and she says other guys are just mad they didn't think of it first; I'd say guys know enough about their own kind to realize that other guys who manipulate girls in that way are being, at least on some level, insincere. Which admittedly would call into question Mayer's whole ultra-sincere mode of songwriting (Fall Out Boy's Pete Wentz recently tweeted that you should buy Battle Studies because it's "genuine"). As The Family Guy put it years ago, "That's enough, John Mayer."
After she had recorded a few songs, she started a MySpace page— not as routine then as it later became— where she streamed songs that were not commercially available, posted pictures of herself cavorting, and began writing emotional blog posts and building her public persona: an accessible figure who seemed a lot like her fans…

After finishing "Not Fair," Allen addressed the audience. “You were singing along to that one, and it’s only just come out today," she said. "You must have been illegally downloading." The crowd laughed.

- Sasha Frere-Jones in The New Yorker in March, on Lily Allen
"I was lucky enough to sort of find an in," Mayer said the other night in an interview on Fuse. "I don't think it's really around anymore, whatever the new in is. For me it was Napster." Years before MySpace made headlines for its role in the popularity of artists like Allen, M.I.A., or Arctic Monkeys, Mayer drew fans through file-sharing and his MP3.com page. In the summer of 2000, at Eddie's Attic in Decatur, Ga., Mayer recorded something called "The Napster Song": "So glad you came/ I see you searched my name." In 2002, Mayer was quoted saying, "Someone downloading one of my songs and listening to it and loving it is the most pure connection I will ever have with anyone my entire life." In a tweet earlier this year, he made a lame joke that depends on readers' knowledge of the BASIC programming language. From MP3.com to Napster to message boards to AIM chatrooms ("Captain Backfire") to blogging to YouTube to Twitter to (ugh!) "Augmented Reality," Mayer has always embraced internet technology. The internet hasn't always embraced him, but that doesn't seem to have hurt him much.

Room for Squares? A flip on the title of a 1960s jazz album by Hank Mobley called No Room for Squares. In 2006, The New York Times' John Leland wrote that, given the past century's mainstream annexation of hipness, our culture had become "post-hip." Mayer understood this implicitly in 2001: Here was a "white boy who stole the blues" (and the internet) in order to play to the squares-- i.e., in a post-hip society, pretty much everyone except people who still vainly persist in seeking perfection as a hipster.
Make no mistake about it: "Borat" is locked and loaded, ready to invade the public consciousness. Get ready to say goodbye to it.

When "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" is released tomorrow, there will be a short window of time, from about 6pm on Friday to about 10pm on Sunday, when the film's impact will sit in perfect equilibrium with both its mass appeal and its comic potency. "The hip eclipse", let's call it. I say 10pm because somewhere in Oxnard, CA, 7pm local time, a young Friday's waiter will deliver a plate of Jack Daniel's Chicken Strips and punctuate it with the phrase "You laaaaaaiik!!!!!". This will be the first sign of the "Borat" outbreak - what will eventually be transmitted through contact with co-workers, on airplanes and in casinos, and GOOD LORD, in bars everywhere.

It won't be the fault of the movie, and it certainly won't be the fault of Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat's creator. It will be due to a society set up to adopt, consume and then divorce a trend in dizzying time. The infrastructure is ripe for it, a now perfectly balanced sphere of blogs, critiques, and various other forms of media with which to hijack the trend. Borat impressionists will appear on youtube, and a home-made mega-mix of lines from the movie will be cobbled together by a 14 year old and placed incongruously atop a house drum beat. It will be an internet sensation. And while Dayton, Ohio greets it, the Lower East Side will have already eulogized it. If you don't believe me when I say we will kill it by hugging it too hard, look at what happened to Brokeback Mountain - "I wish I could quit you" became a ready-mixed punch line for months, and it wasn't even trying. (Even the word "brokeback" itself came to be an out of the box bon mot.) We've been waiting for the next "WAY!" and "NOT!" for a long time. And we're about to get it in the form of "high five!" and "wa-wa-wee-wah!"

And if you're still wondering what leg I have to stand on with this, just remember: I was truly hip for three weeks back in 2001.


- Mayer, in a November 2006 blog post titled "Borat: A Prediction", since deleted
"John Mayer -- what a curious case," Rosen wrote in Rolling Stone, and I couldn't agree more. Later, on Slate, he added, "It strikes me that Mayer and his ilk get an especially tough time from critics. Sensitive white boy singer-songwriters with easy-listening proclivities and Berklee College of Music-honed chops—they’re not exactly rock critic bait. Even in these poptimistic times, it’s still socially acceptable to reflexively dismiss the Mayers of the world.

For a while last year I started keeping track of things I read that reminded me of Mayer's critical situation (I wouldn't call it a predicament-- like I said, he doesn't need us). "I know I'm not supposed to like John Mayer anymore," one Tumblr user wrote. "But when I was 17 and starting freshman year of college, and the guy down the hall had this acoustic CD of some guy he heard at a coffee shop, I was done for. A tiny part of me will always say 'yes, please' when you put on John Mayer." The same day, another Tumblr user wrote, simply, "You really liked John Mayer, too." Another, again within the same 24-hour period, had a different view: "I hate John Mayer. Everything about him. He's unoriginal, boring, not good enough for Jennifer Aniston, and his voice sounds like crap. Just felt like sharing!" Two days later, "Daughters"-- the vaguely condescending, "Butterfly Kisses"-replacing father-daughter wedding dance from Heavier Things-- appeared on a Tumblr user's "The Definitive List of Songs No Dude Should Have on Their iPod." My wife considers Mayer unbearably smug.

Is it still douchebaggery if you can back it up? When the latest Billboard albums chart comes out, Battle Studies is projected to come in at #1, selling between 275,000 and 300,000 copies.
This is a song that is not about smoking pot ... Is 'I'll Make Love to You' by Boyz II Men about making babies? Not unless you're making babies it's not. If you're washing your car listening to 'I'll Make Love to You'-- which I'd highly recommend now that I hear myself say it-- then that would be a song about washing your car. You see what I'm trying to put together here for ya?

- Mayer, "Live at Letterman" webcast, 11/19/09
"Me and all my friends/ We're all misunderstood," Mayer sang on Continuum's widely misunderstood (including, for years, by yours truly) state-of-a-generation political offering "Waiting on the World to Change". I'd eventually like to argue that Mayer himself is misunderstood, but for today I'll just stick to his songs. Rosen shares my appreciation of Battle Studies' "Who Says", a mellow, West Coast-style folk-pop song, so I don't want to diminish that at all (nor am I trying to offend any of the other critics or editors whose work is discussed here-- just trying to share an alternate view). But Rosen also calls "Who Says" "the confession of a dope-smoking roué." Now, Mayer's tabloid exploits aren't exactly a closely guarded secret, and his fun-loving personality has been a key part of his charisma going back to the coffeehouse days of 1999 and 2000. So I think "Who Says" is a lot more than that. Mayer isn't Bono-- he keeps his political statements personal.

"Who Says" is one of my favorite songs of 2009, but not because of anything to do with its most headline-grabbing subject, weed. To me, it's the anti-guilty pleasure. "There should never be guilt in pleasure," Mayer recently wrote, in a tweet praising Miley Cyrus's "The Climb," and it's an idea that goes back to his early days. Mayer makes "room for squares" by saying anyone is welcome, come as you are. He used to cover N*Sync and Backstreet Boys. On one of the first live versions I heard of "Who Says", Mayer introduces it by saying something about a T-shirt. In Mayer's view, if somebody comes up to you and says, "What's with your shirt?", and you respond by getting all defensive, like, "What do you mean what's up with my shirt?"-- well, you're done. Finished. He's got you. The proper response, Mayer says, is more along the lines of, "I like my shirt-- what's with YOUR shirt?" So much of the time, so many of us-- the Tumblr user(s) above, me, probably you-- give into people like Scabs when they give us a hard time about what we like; we get defensive when they call out our shirts. "It's not that we don't care/ We just know that the fight ain't fair." Another big point in Mayer's tweets recently has been how much he hates it when someone says they "actually" like something. "Hey, that Black Eyed Peas song? I actually like it!" We live in this world where everybody is supposedly soo over "guilty pleasures," but the language we use to talk about music or culture-- or gossip blogs-- says otherwise. The emphasis in Mayer's song, then, is on not the "get stoned" but the "who says." Who says I can't say "Who Says" is one of my favorite songs of the year? (I like "Who Says", what's with your Animal Collective?) Who says Mayer can't gallivant around with celebrity women-- or for that matter "every girl on the county line"-- and drunkenly rant at Apple guy Justin Long about Ron Paul? What right do I have to judge him? What right do you have to judge me? I love the way "Who Says" lays out this universal question, "Who says I can't be free?" (speaking of anti-fascist, Mr. Christgau!), but still makes room for Mayer to "plan a trip to Japan alone," which he actually did (and made an awesome ambient-tinged video about). The song's politics are a bit libertarian, not explicitly Democrat or Republican, so both Red and Blue America are still welcome, as long as they like fun-- and, well, Jimmy Buffett has a nice career going for him, doesn't he? There's a sort of inter-connected austerity to the lyrics that I just love, and it's in the guitar lines, too. The percussion is the best-sounding I've ever heard on a Mayer studio album-- as such a percussive guitar player, he usually seems to make that part sound cheesy to my ears when it comes time to get a band together for recording-- and so are the vocals, which have a lot less of that breathy Sting pitch-control trick that Mayer tends to over-use. On Fuse, he told an interviewer, "'Who Says' was sort of like grabbing people by the collar and bringing them close again and saying, 'Nope, it's just you and me.'" That's exactly how I heard it-- it's the first new Mayer song I've listened to compulsively since Mayer himself was a new artist.
Lyrics like “I loved you/ gray sweatpants/ no makeup/ so perfect” seem to be the prolific entrée into the… well… sweatpants of women.

Mayer realizes that not everyone subscribes to the “Comfortable” theory: “But it’s true! The truth is that I just want all of my songs to be brutally honest. Now whether that compromises my sexuality… which in the case of ‘Comfortable,’ it totally does… to the point of sometimes wanting to cringe when I have to sing that line. It’s just too sappy-pretty. But I’m glad I feel that way ‘cause it means it’s honest.

“If I want to sing a song about ‘I’m so fucking scared… I don’t know what of… but I’m scared,” I want to write about it. Anger is a very cheap commodity. Anybody can do that. But for me to write what I write, it has to be very honest.”

- Flagpole, 08/23/00, discussing Inside Wants Out track "Comfortable": an acoustic-and-strings, blue-eyed soul ballad of grass-is-always-greener lost love ("You could distinguish Miles from Coltrane"-- a know-it-all might say, "Haha, they play different instruments, stupid," but I'd bet most of a pop audience just knows Davis and Coltrane are good... sort of like how Miley Cyrus said she doesn't actually listen to Jay-Z despite what she sings on "Party in the USA") that has broken my most badass friends in moments of weakness
I'm still processing the rest of Battle Studies, and I'm not sure I will ever come to like it as much as I like "Who Says", although the songs are better constructed, lyrically and melodically, and certainly better played, than most of the junk that floats through my inbox every day (here's Wilson on Celine Dion: "The virtuosity that cool audiences today applaud, the sort Celine always fumbles, is not about having a multi-octave voice or flamenco-fast fingers: It's about being able to manipulate signs and symbols, to hitch them up and decouple them in a blink of an eye, to quote Homer but in the voice of Homer Simpson"). I also agree with the reviewers who take Mayer to task for comparing love to a battlefield-- the conceit is a little trite for Mayer, and besides, he did a much better job of setting a relationship against the context of violence on "Covered in Rain", still the subtlest, most moving post-9/11 song I've heard (maybe partly because I heard him play it when I myself was in the same post-9/11 state that was driving so many columnists to freak out about anthrax mailings and start arguing for war in Iraq). "Half of My Heart," the one with Swift, will be ubiquitous, and deservedly so. "All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye" is nice and more Abbey Road than we expect from John. "Friends, Lovers, or Nothing" caps the album with some more George Harrison-style lead guitar and expertly phrased lyrics that will adorn Facebook profiles (or whatever people put song lyrics in these days) internet-wide for years to come: "Anything other than 'yes' is 'no'/Anything other than 'stay' is 'go'/ Anything less than 'I love you' is lying." Watching recent Mayer live performances on Fuse and via webcast, there's nothing furrowed about his brow, high or low or middle-- just a guy and a band and a crowd all looking like they're feeling free.
If you want to be disintermediated—if you want to skirt or simplify the system of major-label gatekeepers and A&R concerns and marketing departments that might otherwise script your career—then you have to script your career.
- agrammar.tumblr.com, DIY = "personal responsibility!"
Another reason "Who Says" is so significant to me: It's the first time I felt like Mayer made a song that a lot of people would "like" without really "getting," whether those people hear it as a confession or as a dumb fratboy pot song. (I misunderstood "Waiting on the World to Change", but that's because I thought I didn't like it.) Mayer has made a career using the same sorts of online tools later exploited by indie bands, but rather than retreating into cult genres (garage-rock, psych, lo-fi, post-punk, disco, techno, noise), he usually reaches out, through his major label, to a silent majority-- the square majority. "Who Says" finally sounds like a song for himself.
well, i once wrote a defense of the Backstreet Boys' "I Want it That Way" as one of the great pop singles of the last few years, in the process destroying whatever 'indie cred" i once had. most hipster-snobs grow up to realize the error of their ways. to dismiss music based on marketing schemes or credibility perceptions is pretty lame.

the job of any critic is to develop a thicker skin, better ears and a more open mind. those who try to crush those instincts should be ignored. you can't become a better listener when someone is telling you ahead of time what is and what is not cool to like. I haven't heard the John Mayer album, but if you've spent time with it and love it, and can make a compelling case for its musical merit, you shouldn't dim that enthusiasm just to please some nerd who thinks Cursive is the only band that matters.

narrow-mindedness will be the death of rock criticism.

- I e-mailed Chicago Tribune critic Greg Kot asking for a little reassurance after the "Rolling Stone" diss from Scabs. I had seen Kot speak in one of my journalism school classes, and for whatever reason I thought he would want to give me advice. I was able to thank him years later, at my first Pitchfork festival, and I hope he won't mind me quoting his response above.



Oh, hey, the Meat Puppets were here Sunday night! If you were longing for some 90s alt-rock guitar heroics, the reunited brothers Kirkwood gave you a couple hours' worth in a loose, confident set. Casual readers probably know the Arizona band from their songs on Nirvana's MTV Unplugged appearance, if not their 1994 major-label album, Too High to Die. Their 1980s albums for the iconic label SST, though-- particularly 1983's II and 1985's Up on the Sun-- became touchstones for a generation of indie rockers, expanding past hardcore punk to country and beyond. Drugs, prison time, and lineup changes dimmed their legacy some by the turn of the millennium, but Cris and Curt Kirkwood reunited for some shows with new drummer Ted Marcus starting in 2007. That's the lineup that came to the Vaudeville Mews the other night, for a near sell-out crowd of really tall people. The material from new album Sewn Together, stripped of its bland production, sounded rawer and more entertaining, and hits like "Backwater", "Plateau", and "Lake of Fire" were all present and accounted for. Having never seen them before, I guess my biggest surprise was how jammy they turned out to be. The dividing line between the true fans and the people who had to get up early the next morning must've been the encore, which veered into an extended, jam-band-worthy solo as I watched a few people headed toward the exits. "Not too much more, too much more."

Local trio Why Make Clocks, who I've been meaning and failing to see for a while, opened, and their earnest, guitar-driven sound was a pretty good match for the evening, evoking both classic rockers like Crazy Horse and some of the alternative bands they influenced two decades later.

I missed second-billed band Squid Boy because I've been fighting a sinus bug and needed some fresh air. That's also my excuse for posting this so late.

And now to make myself really unpopular... How about them Wildcats?



So the Des Moines Music Coalition's free "Music University: Managing the Media" was last night at House of Bricks. I talked on a panel with Joe Lawler (Des Moines Register, Juice) and Michael Swanger (CityView) about ways the 25-30 or so people in the crowd could get media coverage for their music. Sort of like a CMJ or SXSW panel except on a Wednesday night in the middle of Iowa, I guess. First of all, it was totally great to meet Joe and Michael, whose work I've been reading and enjoying ever since getting to this town back in July. I suspect their advice to the musicians in the audience was probably more immediately useful than mine, if only because they write professionally about music events happening locally and I don't. My main theme, maybe kind of a brutal one, but brutally honest: The surest way to get attention from journalists is to have fans. If you're making emotional connections with people, I'm going to end up hearing about you, and I may want to write about you-- and I won't ever feel like, "Oh, maybe I'll do something nice for this band and write about them." I'll feel like I really HAVE to listen to you-- and, better yet, if your music connects with me, too, I'll feel like YOU'RE the one doing something nice for ME. So many of the e-mails I get are from new bands nobody has heard of yet hoping to get a little Internet buzz going, and I do love discovering somebody before everyone else does, but your best bet is to play live a lot, send your songs to a bunch of smaller blogs, build a fanbase. That way, it won't even matter whether or not the critics like you. John Mayer will be making the music he wants for the rest of his life, and he may never get a single Pitchfork album review. ...Anyway, that's my rant. Thanks so much to Jill Haverkamp and the DMMC for including me in this event. It was an honor, and I'm really excited Des Moines has an organization like that in the first place.

Also last night was a show by loosely San Francisco-based collective Still Flyin' at the Vaudeville Mews. I hadn't heard them, but the Poison Control Center's Patrick Tape Fleming had told me they included members of Masters of Hemisphere, Aislers Set, and Ladybug Transistor, so I was definitely in. When we got to the venue, Patrick talked to the band and told me they had a member of one of my personal favorite groups, recently defunct Australian indie-poppers the Lucksmiths, playing with them. I was dubious. "There are only three members of the Lucksmiths," I declared-- shamefully forgetting they became a quartet with the addition of guitarist Louis Richter (Midstate Orange) on their last few albums-- "and they're in Australia. There's no way one of the ACTUAL Lucksmiths is here." To which Patrick said something like, "No, man, he's right over there, let me introduce you to him." After I embarrassingly attempted to say hello to a couple of the wrong people (remember, I was still thinking this WASN'T a recognizable member of the Lucksmiths), Patrick finally pointed me in the right direction, and sure enough, there was Mark Monnone-- founding Lucksmiths bass player and current solo artist as Monnone Alone-- standing right there by the bar. To make the "small world" thing even weirder, I found out that this guy Gary back in my old neighborhood of Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, at whose house I had seen-- bear with me-- Swedish pop crooner Jens Lekman (who now lives in Australia) play a special post-concert set for fans, is a sometime member of Still Flyin'. Mark had been to that house, too. Gary wasn't there last night, though.

The crowd was small, but Still Flyin' still managed to put on a fun, energetic set. There were nine people onstage, and I didn't get a good look at how many different instruments they were playing, but I do remember they had one dude who was basically a full-time hypeman/dancer. I also remember Gabe-- the one with the mustache, the 'stache that puts my still-tentative attempt to shame-- played some trombone. Patrick had described Still Flyin' to me as sort of a white reggae band-- a twee-reggae band-- which I have to admit didn't exactly sound like the greatest thing (sorry, Matisyahu). Turns out, yeah, there's a bit of that Jamaican upswing on tracks like "Forever Dudes". More than that, though, it's just gleeful indie-pop party music, the kind of music that actually teaches the indie kids to dance again while us bloggers opine about European dance music and hip-hop from the comfort of our headphones with nary a booty-shake. Sounded sort of like LAKE or early Architecture in Helsinki to these ears, really. Which is good. Couldn't hear a lot of the words-- as a sound guy once told the PCC, "If you're trying to get some kind of life-changing point to come across with your lyrics, it ain't happening"-- but as usual at these kinds of shows, it didn't really matter. It probably helped that three of us each bought a round of shots for the band. I remember Mark and I had one of those great, rambling conversations afterward about Australian music. He likes (and has played with some of!) the same Australian bands that I like: Crayon Fields, Sly Hats, Guy Blackman, the Twerps. He also mentioned a few bands I didn't know and will check out: The Motifs, Milk Teddy, and Sleepy Township. Neither of us cares for the Temper Trap. Thanks to Fong's for the chicken and broccoli slice right before closing time, and my apologies to the empty planter on Fourth St. in front of the Lift or someplace like that, I can't really remember, you know how we do.



For 25 years, Yo La Tengo have weathered the slings and arrows of indie fortune like pretty much nobody other than Sonic Youth. When the once technically inept Hoboken, N.J., rockers found themselves among the last formerly underground bands of their generation still standing at the turn of the millennium-- years after the grunge-rock gold rush-- they aged with amazing grace on 2000's cozy And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. When their next album, 2003's relatively sleepy Summer Sun, turned out to be a rare critical dud for the group (co-founded by former music critic Ira Kaplan), they turned around and released a sprawling, omnivorous monster, 2006's 75-minute I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass-- one of the best albums many critics presumably didn't make enough time to hear repeatedly in full. Now, once again, Yo La Tengo are in a weird spot. On Friday, I read an article by a likeable young woman who held them up as the quintessential example of a band that some sinister cabal of creepy music critics constantly hypes-- then acknowledged she can't help loving Yo La Tengo anyway. The same day, in response, another pro music critic tweeted that he finds the group "boring." Yo La Tengo don't have the new-car smell of your Vampire Weekends or Grizzly Bears, but they've built up too much institutional credibility for liking them to be an edgy or unpredictable stance; they're almost definitely never going to lose their devoted cult following, but their chances for Album of the Year-size acclaim have probably passed, and they're not the Flaming Lips. What's a band to do?

Popular Songs, like I Am Not Afraid of You... before it, synthesizes a range of influences-- psych, Motown, etc.-- into another set of worthwhile additions to the Yo La Tengo songbook. It's not going to grab a whole lot of attention, but if you listen to it with open ears, it's hard to imagine too many people not liking it. Before Friday's show at the Slowdown in Omaha, I had seen the band twice before, though I wouldn't really count either: The first was when they were playing their instrumental film soundtrack album in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, and the second was at the Pitchfork festival over the summer, except I had just gotten into town and spent way too much of the set talking to much-missed friends. D'oh. Friday also marked my first visit to the Slowdown, a venue co-founded a couple of years ago by Saddle Creek label dudes Jason Kulbel and Robb Nansel. What a place to see a show: Clear sightlines from anywhere, free coolers of water, and much more importantly, astonishingly great acoustics. When Yo La Tengo opened the show with 15 minutes of instrumental noise-skronk (Popular Songs closer "And the Glitter is Gone"), you could actually hear what was going on, not just that it was loud. When they broke things up in the middle of the set by bringing drummer Georgia Hubley to the front of the stage for a few acoustic songs, you could hear every nuance in their urgent whispers. ...At other shows, how much are my ears usually missing? With a setlist that demanded audience attention from the opening feedback, Yo La Tengo put on a captivating set, whether inspiring a little crowd shimmying with the boogie-ing "Periodically Triple or Double", playing old favorites like "Autumn Sweater" and "Sugarcube", or blasting off into noisy epics like "More Stars Than There Are in Heaven" (the source of this post's title quote). I was pretty tired at points, having slept too little the previous night, and I wasn't really feeling the Moby Grape cover (apparently Yo La Tengo are covering a song by someone from every city they play, and I guess the Grape had Omaha connects), but I was definitely never bored. I guess that makes me another creepy music critic.

And then, to top it all off, it snowed. Thanks, Nebraska!



I've still been going to shows, I just haven't been finding much I needed blog-length posts to tell you about.

For my random brain spatterings, there's Twitter. To highlight recent articles, blog posts, or songs of interest, there's Tumblr. And then there's all the stuff I've been writing for work, whether as a business journalist or as a reviewer over at Pitchfork.

That doesn't mean there haven't been fun things going in Des Moines-- hopefully you didn't miss 'em-- and that doesn't mean there aren't still fun things coming up!

First, let's look ahead. Turns out my fall concert preview was premature and left out some great shows.

Catchy, clever, slightly yelpy Alabama garage-poppers Thomas Function (above) play tonight at Vaudeville Mews, and I would highly recommend that anyone who isn't seeing Miley Cyrus or Gwar/Lamb of God go check this out. They share a label with So Cow, who released one of my favorite albums of the year, and they should be a great time.

Local piano-pop heroes Christopher the Conquered have a few shows coming up. First is the free CD release party for new album You're Gonna Glow in the Dark, coming Oct. 10 at Ames Progressive with Patrick Tape Fleming, who also recorded the album. Christopher the Conquered come back to the Mews again Oct. 17 with the Atudes, Andrew Fish, and Nuclear Rodeo. They play Scented Vinyl at Mars Cafe on Oct. 26. Then come a couple of Iowa shows outside the Des Moines area before they return to the Mews with Des Noise favorites the Poison Control Center, plus Atudes, New Bodies, Bradley Unit, and Coax from Chuckanut. If you're curious about local music, you should put at least one of these shows on your calendar, because these guys are some of our best and brightest.

On Oct. 13, indie website Daytrotter swoops into Johnston with its Barnstorming Tour. The lineup, featuring up-and-comers Suckers and Paleo, looks pretty good! Here's the info: 6pm -- Johnston, Iowa: BARN SHOW #4: The Simpson Barn, 6169 Northglenn Dr. (Performing -- Dawes, Christopher Denny, Suckers, Snowblink, Paleo)

Also Oct. 13, though, shoegaze pop group Ringo Deathstarr plays Vaudeville Mews. Hmm. I'm also really into their locally based openers, Wolves in the Attic. (Deep Sleep Waltzing opens, too, but I haven't heard that band yet.)

Omaha's Little Brazil hits the Mews on Oct. 18, with Weatherbox, Bright Giant, and the Chatty Cathys. I'm told they've played Des Moines a few times before, so there should be a good crowd for this one. (The doors open at 5 p.m., show starts at 5:30. It's all ages and $7.00.)

Oct. 25, South Dakota folk-poppers We Have Hooks for Hands play the Mews. They're on Minneapolis-based Afternoon Records, same label as the Poison Control Center.

And on Oct. 28, you should go check out... uhm, me. I'm honored and really excited to be a part of a panel being held by the Greater Des Moines Music Coalition at 7 p.m. at the House of Bricks. Jill Haverkamp, marketing and PR co-chair of the DMMC, will be the moderator. For me, it'll finally be a chance to meet Jill, CityView critic Michael Swanger, and Juice/Register critic Joe Lawler for the first time, and to hear some questions from locals who share my interest in music. For you, well, here's the panel description:

Exploring the best ways to approach reporters and bloggers to get coverage for your band. Panelists will discuss how to stand out amongst the clutter, their process in deciding what to cover, and the ins and outs of being a music journalist in the new music industry. The discussion will also expand upon press kits, biographies, pitch letters, and general media relations techniques.
What's more, Grant Hart of Husker Du is playing the Mews on Nov. 5, and I hear local band Why Make Clocks' Chuck Hoffman may be opening.

Also, Old Crow Medicine Show plays Nov. 6 at Hoyt Sherman. I don't know their music very well-- they're a little bit on the jammier side of my tastes-- but a friend burned me some tracks a few years ago, and they should be a good time.

Don't forget the Meat Puppets are coming to the Mews on Nov. 8. Why Make Clocks is definitely opening for that one. Bob Schneider will be there Nov. 10, and Modern Skirts, who put on a good show at 80/35, will be there Nov. 17. Folkie Ellis Paul, whose "Did I Ever Know You" was on a good mix CD I got once in college, comes Dec. 4.

Even further ahead, country-pop darling Taylor Swift will be headlining at Wells Fargo Arena on May 6, 2010.

Another country star, Brad Paisley, comes to Wells Fargo on Jan. 15. If that weren't Mrs. Des Noise's birthday, I might be tempted to see if I could finagle a way to go for opener Miranda Lambert (Justin Moore also opens). But though I may be dumb, I'm not THAT dumb.

Me, I'm roadtripping to Omaha tonight for one of my favorite veteran bands, Yo La Tengo.
In case you missed it, New York magazine had a great profile on the band last month. Mrs. Des Noise and I used one of their songs as our going-down-the-aisle music at our wedding a couple of years ago up at Jester Park; I wrote something about the song for Pitchfork's "Top 500 Tracks of the 2000s" list, which you can read (#182) while listening to the song here.

Last night we went to see Maya Angelou speak at Drake University. She started by singing a snippet of an old spiritual about a "rainbow in the clouds." At first I wasn't sure what was going on, but then she brilliantly incorporated that theme into her entire speech, relating it to events in her life and closing by singing a bit of the song again. She was hilarious and wise, like a grandmother who has seen it all and is going to share some life lessons with you. She could've chosen to speak on some intellectual topic, or to wax political-- her interview in the Des Moines Register defined courage as "defending the defenseless"-- but with her background of accomplishments, she didn't need to. Instead, she shared a message that even the preteen sitting behind us could probably appreciate, about how there can be hope in darkness (a rainbow in the clouds), and how we every one of us can make a profound difference in someone's lives-- even if we don't know it.

I've been to a few other fun music-type things lately, including Christopher at the Conquered at the Mews, Austin May at Scented Vinyl, indie-folk group Menlo and rappers Maxila Blue at the Dogtown Festival (apologies to Beati Paoli-- I didn't mean to miss your set, it's just that dinner took longer than expected), and the Rural Albert Advantage with the Love of Language and Pink Kodiak at the Mews. Oh, and I did some successful record shopping at ZZZ Records, too: Picked up some old Kraftwerk, Talking Heads, Harry Nilsson, Fleetwood Mac, Sylvester, Jan Hammer, Slade, New Order, and George Carlin, along with the new Jim Guthrie LP and a couple of personal favorites I should've already owned on vinyl (Belle and Sebastian's Tigermilk and If You're Feeling Sinister).

Other notable recent musical goings-on:

Sian Alice Group canceled. So did Skee-Lo. No, you can't wish for infinite wishes.

The John & Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park! I love it. Totally proud to have this in our city.

On a sadder note, longtime local rock'n'roll radio DJ Dic Youngs died at 68. I never heard him, but it sounds like he made a great contribution to music and culture in this city, and he will be missed.

So: What else is coming up? What am I forgetting? I always blank on something.



If you didn't know, you wouldn't have known.

Hessen Haus, the German beer hall located on 4th St. near Court Ave. in downtown Des Moines, usually picks up around 9 p.m. on Sundays. That's when, for the past four-plus months, Bob Nastanovich has hosted a weekly trivia night.

Last night's trivia session was more crowded than usual.

It could've been the promise of a $100 food and drink tab for the winners-- twice the usual $50 purse. Sure enough, the former Jeopardy contestant's team was back in the Haus, after having gone missing the previous week.

Or it could've been the occasion for the double-size prize. Nastanovich, who works most of the year at the Prairie Meadows race track in nearby Altoona, was headed for Chicago, where he works the other four months or so at the Hawthorne Racecourse. This was to be Bob's last trivia night of a season that began May 17.

At least one person I talked to suspected all the people lining the long tables and bar were here for a different reason. "Oh, I think they know," said the woman, whom I'm only not naming because I didn't tell her she might be quoted for a blog post.

Local media have yet to pick up the story, and Des Moines locals can be forgiven for not knowing. But, right now, Bob is-- how did Kanye West and the Clipse put it?-- kind of like a big deal.

The buzz started last week. On Sept. 16, a friend from Brooklyn e-mailed me: "Any truth to this Pavement rumor? I know you hang out with one of them once a week."

"Hang out with" was an exaggeration. Bob's the host, and Mrs. Des Noise and I are just consistently underachieving contestants. The rumor, though? Totally true.

In the 1990s, Nastanovich was a founding member of the cult-adored indie rock group Pavement. He was sort of a utility man, starting as a second drummer but adding various instruments and vocals.

The band released five critically hailed albums, scoring a modest MTV hit with Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain's "Cut Your Hair" in 1994, before breaking up 10 years ago. Their final album, 1999's somewhat disappointing Terror Twilight, boasted production from Nigel Godrich, the guy manning the boards for all those classic Radiohead songs.

Lead singer Stephen Malkmus went his own way, backed by the Jicks, and came to town this summer for the 80/35 Festival. Guitarist Scott "Spiral Stairs" Kannberg did his thing, too, starting a group called Preston School of Industry.

Bob, meanwhile, has been right here in Des Moines, occasionally helping out a band like Massachusetts' New Radiant Storm King with a guest vocal or between-set DJing at the Vaudeville Mews. You can see him join Ames' own the Poison Control Center for a boozy rendition of "Two States", originally from Pavement's 1992 debut LP, Slanted and Enchanted, right at the top of this page.

Pavement, as many of you will have read, is reuniting. As of last night, they had already sold out two shows-- or was it three?-- at New York's Central Park. Shows that won't take place until next September. Yes, Bob is kind of like a big deal.

If you didn't know, you wouldn't have known. Bob didn't mention it.

The Jeopardy team won, as usual. When the "Jäger train" rumbled by, signaling $3 Jägermeister shots, Bob's wife Whitney Nastanovich was the first to alert us all, as usual. (Somehow, she can do this while hula hooping.)

Only if you listened really carefully, a few minutes after the winners were announced, would you have heard Whitney grab the mic to share a bashful Bob's great news: "Pavement's getting back together!!!"

The Nastanoviches are returning to Hessen Haus for a trivia-night cameo Oct. 11, so if you didn't know, you'll have another chance to wish Bob well.

And you'll still have time to try the bar's great selection of Oktoberfest brews. I recommend the Ayinger.



I barely managed to post my summer concert preview before it officially became summer and my list would've no longer been even technically on time. I've been hoping I could be at least that punctual with my fall concert preview, especially after seeing the Cityview and the Des Moines Register's Datebook fall entertainment guides pile up on my coffee table. This is my best effort.

Britney Spears on Sept. 11, I'm sorry I missed you.

(Hat tip to Tom Ewing for the title of this post. Thanks to Patrick and Ashley Tape Fleming for making the adjacent photo with the IOWA shaved-head fan guy happen... it was our dirty iPhone, not any shakiness by Ashley, that caused the blur. Mrs. Des Noise is cropped out, to protect the innocent. And the jobs thereof.)


Friday, Sept. 18: Grace Basement @ Vaudeville Mews
Catchy, jangly St. Louis guitar-pop with reverence for '60s psych: "Today I made some hummus for you" (listen)

Saturday, Sept. 19: Silversun Pickups and Manchester Orchestra @ Hoyt Sherman
Two popular indie rock bands I've never seen live. L.A.'s Silversun Pickups go for taut rythms, Placebo-pinched vox, and post-"Popular" Nada Surf mellow anthemics, while Atlanta's Manchester Orchestra do the "grandiose 1990s alternative (slight keyboard)" thing. If I can convince Mrs. Des Noise, I'll go.

Sunday, Sept. 20: Laura Barrett @ Vaudeville Mews
My favorite moment for the kalimba, or thumb piano, so far is former Vaud-playing Swede Jens Lekman's cover of late Iowa native Arthur Russell's "A Little Lost". Expect Toronto's Barrett to play the instrument-- and maybe keyboard, kazoo, bass pedals, and "other percussion"-- when she brings her low-key, minimalist folk-pop to Des Moines. (listen)

Monday, Sept. 21: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band @ Wells Fargo Arena
The Boss returns to Des Moines for the first time since 2006, this time with his longtime accomplices. OK, I really like Nebraska, "The River", "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City", and probably plenty of other songs I'm blanking on right now-- I'm not a total Philistine!-- but I've always found "Born to Run" ridiculous, winced after Springsteen got a career boost out of 9/11 with The Rising, and I don't have $90 to shell out on tickets, so since I'm sitting this one out anyway I'm gonna have to side with Richard Meltzer, who compared Bruce's blend of 1950s nostalgia (Roy Orbison!) and 1960s nostalgia (Bob Dylan!) to another 1970s phenomenon: the Fonz. This view is probably the real reason I could no longer live in the mid-Atlantic states.

Monday, Sept. 21: Trivium @ People's
Three years ago, friend of Des Noise Tom Breihan called Trivium "the Jackson 5 of Underground Metal." I'm not one of those indie rock guys who nurtures a pet metal obsession; the only aggressive bones I have in my body are passive. But still.

Monday, Sept. 21: The Chambermaids @ Vaudeville Mews
Pedal-pushing Minneapolis power trio (their MySpace bio invokes shoegazers My Bloody Valentine, art-punks Wire, the Auckland Sound of New Zealand's Flying Nun, and the heady foreboding of 4AD) gets Down in the Berries. (listen)

Wednesday, Sept. 23: (early show) Good Old War @ Vaudeville Mews
My God, Fleet Foxes already have their own Thorns. At least that's what I thought when I first heard this band, a splinter project of Philadelphia indie-rockers Days Away, but it was only a live acoustic track. The full-band material is more textured and forceful; my RSS reader suggests these guys, like Jersey's Gaslight Anthem, are affiliated with the punk world despite their easygoing folk-rock sound. (listen)

(late show) Yourself and the Air @ Vaudeville Mews
"I don't know why but I feel so strange," these shimmery Chicago indie-rockers murmur plaintively on "So You've Come to Mingle", a buzzing, chiming, handclapping, whoa-oh-ohing stop-starter from their record Friend of All Breeds. "I don't know why but I feel like a mess... with you." I've only heard a couple of tracks, as with most of the up-and-coming groups playing at the Mews this month, but I could totally see myself bouncing around and making a mess of myself to this energetic, emotive stuff. (listen)

Thursday, Sept. 24: The Love Language @ Vaudeville Mews
Red-lining North Carolina indie band rocks nostalgic for Western swing, Buddy Holly, and a girl named Mary Lou who stole their heart. Says Ladd: "I really, really love this band!" Consider me there. (listen) Also: Saddle Creek-signed Toronto indie-folkers the Rural Albert Advantage (listen)

Friday, Sept. 25: Dave Matthews Band @ Principal Park
I understand Dave Matthews fandom. I heard about the band from an older cousin in 8th grade. When I moved to Nashville a year later and everyone was freaking out about some Hootie and the Blowfish band, DMB was common ground. They were even my first concert, in Phoenix in 10th grade. I still have some of the bootlegs. And I find this video hilarious. Everybody who goes will have a good time! I get it, and I think there's something good to be said for it, but I don't think anybody wants to read my take on it.

Friday, Sept. 25: The Shirelles, the Crystals, the Chantels @ Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino
What are the chances these are the people who actually sang on the records?

Saturday, Sept. 26: Dogtown Fest
The Register's Sophia Ahmad has the lineup (I've only see Beati Paoli; curious about the others):
  • Main stage at 23rd and University Street — 4:20 p.m. – Finn Miles, 5:30 p.m. – Menlo, 6:30 p.m. – Beati Paoli, 8 p.m. – Maxilla Blue, 9:30 p.m. – Cashes Rivers
  • Acoustic stage at Mars Cafe, 2318 University Ave. — 6:15 p.m. – James Biehn, 7:30 p.m. – Seedlings, 9 p.m. – Curry & Red
Saturday, Sept. 26: The Airborne Toxic Event @ People's
Earlier this year, I wrote: "When I read the Don Delillo book from which this band got their name, I thought it was overrated, the sort of thing a celebrity might say is great just to feel smart-- the postmodern Old Man and the Sea. OK, I was still just a freshman in college. There's a very good chance I was wrong."

Monday, Sept. 28: Mark Mallman @ Vaudeville Mews
Minneapolis piano-rocker with grandiose guitar touches befitting Wells Fargo Arena performers Trans-Siberian Orchestra toes up to the Weird Al irony line. (listen) (Star Tribune profile)

Tuesday, Sept. 29: The Rosewood Thieves @ Vaudeville Mews
Rootsy recent Hold Steady openers have the double-track vocals, syllable-stretching tunes, and melancholy guitar arrangements to earn comparisons to Elliott Smith or Earlimart, if not quite John Lennon. The folk and country tinges also align the New York band with the likes of Blitzen Trapper, Fleet Foxes, or Whiskeytown. (listen) with Portland's slightly folksier rock howlers the Dead Trees (listen)

Wednesday, Sept. 30: Wovenhand @ Vaudeville Mews
Former frontman for Denver alt-country band 16 Horsepower gets heavy and Nick Cave ominous in support of last year's Ten Stones. (listen)

Thursday, Oct. 1: Wilco at University of Iowa Memorial Union, Iowa City
Wilco (The Des Noise fall concert preview item).

Thursday, Oct. 8: Owl City @ House of Bricks
Mrs. Des Noise has already instantly denounced this EXTREMELY Postal Service-like band's "Fireflies" as more or less a crime against humanity. So I may be in the minority here. But I like the Postal Service! I like the idea of a band revisiting the Postal Service/Discovery sissy electro-pop sound and translating it for a mainstream radio audience! I like "Fireflies"! And I hope to like Owl City live.

Friday, Oct. 9: Miley Cyrus @ Wells Fargo Arena
Miley's "Party in the U.S.A.", like Kylie's much better "Can't Get You Outta My Head" before it, sounds like a pop hit with both mass audiences and critics in mind. I don't know that I'd believe the KISS FM DJ I heard saying he saw a trucker blasting the Hannah Montana star's current hit with the windows down, but I do know that it's a fascinating song to talk about. Meta to the max, it's already been called "the first Michael Jackson tribute record," and it prompted Mrs. Des Noise to ask whether she's getting paid for all those endorsements: KISS FM, Britney, Jay-Z. The only people the Top 40 really matters to, though, in terms of IRL social impact, are teenagers and preteens, and I sort of hate how endorsing this song would suggest you're endorsing the conformity that makes Miley's tummy feel better. Hey young girls: Don't like KISS FM or Britney, let alone that sweet feminist Jay? You don't get invited to the party! I won't be showing up, either, but I am morbidly curious.

Friday, Oct. 9: Lamb of God, Gwar @ Val Air Ballroom
Yeah, so I probably won't go to this. I know that some of my friends probably would. Metal! And joke-metal! And unfair jokes about metal that write themselves, thereby perpetuating metal's embrace by indie kids who maybe used to joke about metal!

Friday, Oct. 9: Yo La Tengo @ the Slowdown, Omaha
I will, in fact, be heading to Nebraska to see Hoboken's post-Sinatra finest this night. New album Popular Songs is their second straight triumph after 2003's uncharacteristically middling Summer Sun. I wrote something about their song "Our Way to Fall" for one of Pitchfork's best-of-the-decade lists: here.

Saturday, Oct. 10: AC/DC @ Wells Fargo Arena
Totally worth $90, says aforementioned friend of Des Noise Tom Breihan, who wrote up the classic kilt-rockers' 2008 Madison Square Garden gig for the Village Voice. Almost certainly true, but anybody wanna get me on the guest list?

Wednesday, Oct. 14: Dethklok, Mastodon, High on Fire, Converge @ Val Air Ballroom
Finally! A metal show I really want to see!

Wednesday, Oct. 28: The Veronicas @ the M Shop, Ames
I'd still be curious to see this Avril-like band some time.

Thursday, Oct. 29: Matisyahu @ People's
Everyone's favorite Hasidic reggae-rapper from this year's 80/35 festival makes his autumnal return.

Sunday, Nov. 1: New Found Glory @ People's
Whoa, these pop-punks are still around? That one guy looks kinda like Morrissey with a skunk hair-stripe.

Sunday, Nov. 22: Minus the Bear @ People's
Mathy Seattle indie rockers.