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!