Iowa City is a very small town. Highlights of the musical life here have included what I’m told is an annual visit from Jonathan Richman, some sort of noise/thrash outfit that are the staff of the espresso cart, and the Britney Spears cover band that plays at all the Workshop keggers. Such a collection, while satisfyingly eclectic, is too random for depth in any one category. Our town’s best hope, musically speaking, seems to be faithful imitation (the right-on cover of “Baby One More Time”, or Jo-Jo’s faithful auto-impersonation). Even downtown’s most ambitious record store, the not-very-ambitiously-named Record Collector, strikes the observant patron right away with its fondness for the Chicago indie scene, circa 1994. It’s a very uncanny experience to walk into that store and see silk-screens from shows that came through the Lounge Ax 10 years ago.
How very happy I was to discover, then, that another local music store was sponsoring a record release party for a local singer/songwriter type named Dave Olson. The event was also meant to inaugurate Stumble and Fall, the new label putting out Dave’s album.
Sal’s Music Emporium is spacious enough to provide a small performance space at the end of the bins and to the left of the counter. A small crowd milled among the bins, munching on cheese and crackers and drinking the preferred local swill, Pabst Blue Ribbon, out of cans kept in a cooler full of ice. Olson played a plugged-in acoustic guitar; Atom Robinson switched from bass to accordion, and Matt Winegardner played the drums.
The three of them filled that space with sunny, ringing chords, bittersweet accordion strains, and a delightful audience-participation version of the Pixies’ “Here Comes Your Man”.
I mention the Pixies cover particularly, not just because I love the song and was thrilled to hear it rendered as the twang song it really always was, but because it is the key to understanding what makes Olson’s shtick work. Like the ultra-mod Clem Snide (whose name I have reverently invoked more than once), Olson’s twang is not nostalgia or sickening “folkiness” for its own sake. There’s as much Bruce Springsteen as Dylan in his husky baritone. His idiom is purely modern, his backdrop the subtle grays of the industrial Midwest. It is also unabashedly melodic, open, and simple music.
The album’s best cuts are the rollicking opener, “The Workin’ Life”, with its “whoa ho ho ho” chorus and energetic strumming, and the bittersweet “Postcard.” The latter gets most of its longing from artful but sparse employment of the accordion. The mournful refrain sets the mood for a song about a method of communication “with a picture on the back / to make up for what the writing lacks.” The goofy but infectious “Alien Song” is also an old fashioned toe-tapper.
If it weren’t too facile of a comparison, I’d say that this is music well aware of its limitations but never lacking in imaginative interpretation. Every traditional bass line or chord structure is played with enough heart to redeem it, and self-aware but delicate lyrics further elevate these familiar refrains.