Introducing Physical Media Blog’s serialized survey of Iowa music in cassette tape form. Is the audio quality prime? No. Do all of these tapes still work? We hope so. Do we love collecting Iowa cassettes and organizing them with the loving care of a university archivist? Yes.
For the first entry in the series, here’s a grab bag of treats from Southern Iowa artists spanning the children’s music, folk-rock, and pop genres.
Inside Rainbow Land!, Phyllis Khare — 1990
Today Phyllis Khare is a social media marketing consultant and an author of two books on the subject. But in 1990 she was a songwriter and musician who released a delightful children’s album called Inside Rainbow Land! which followed her debut, When the Sun is Up!
She’s from Fairfield, where she still lives along with multiple generations of her family, and I’m told that this tape was beloved among the young families in the Maharishi School community when it came out. I found this particular copy of the cassette at a thrift store in town. It’s starting to warble and distort a little, but that’s just what thirty years of love sounds like.
Khare’s singing voice has a genial, conversational tone, even more so because I can hear it reflected in the speaking voice of her adult daughter, who often chatted with me about VHS tapes at Goodwill prior to the apocalypse. While most of the songs are set to finger-style acoustic guitar, there’s an impressive variety of instrumentation on the album, all performed beautifully, and a few cheerful acapella numbers too.
The golden tracks “In My Backyard” and “Flowers” evoke the magical springtime world of a child’s garden, letting us see fresh wonders from a knee-level view. The winsome pair “Sandbox” and “I Like Dolls” were co-written with the artist’s children and hold the touching sincerity of a crayon drawing. You can hear the great care that went into these compositions, it feels like a home-made present made just for you. And for Khare’s children and grandchildren, it is.
The Poet Game, Greg Brown — 1994
This was the first Greg Brown album I heard and it’s still one of my favorites. My college roommate had a CD of it and we listened to it all the time. (CDs were circles with music on them. College was a physical location for learning.) It’s one of those albums that brings me back to a time and place when I listen to it, and for that reason I mostly save it for when I’m in the right mood so that I can keep it sacred and tied to the past.
Brown is celebrated as a songwriter but he’s a great singer too. He shows expressive versatility on “Sadness,” one of the best from this collection, moving from a growl into a vibrato before letting his voice crack as he begs with sadness, “Go away, leave me alone.” He sounds like he was trembling when he recorded this.
His lyrics, like his voice, draw the listener toward him; he’s rewarding of attention but doesn’t demand it. In “My New Book,” for instance, he slowly accumulates details, punctuated, like a Dylan song, with a one-line refrain; we feel like we’re being pulled into a hair-raising campfire story but, like the title suggests, he’s also holding something back, the whole tale is for the memoir. The opening track “Brand New ’64 Dodge” is a grainy photograph of a childhood memory that avoids sentimentality with well-placed observations and a touch of humor that make it real. We’re in the car with him from the get-go and he knows where he’s going.
Longtime collaborator Bo Ramsey, who co-produced, puts in great guitar work throughout the collection. It was released on Red House Records which put out many of Brown’s best albums including Iowa Waltz and his excellent rendition of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience.
She’s Drunk Like the Rest of Us, Karen Meat — 2016
I’m a big fan of Karen Meat. She’s a brilliant songwriter with an ability to push past pop toward something stranger and harder to place, maybe drunkcore. The very sound waves are inebriated here, this music just turned 21, there’s a wavering, watery-eyed haziness permeating the songs and they are truly beautiful. The tape marries funk and disco with rock’n’roll and Dust Brothers (it’s a group wedding) for a brief but varied set, with producer Dana T’s imaginative guitar arrangements providing a light-catching sparkle throughout.
The moment when the beat comes in on “6/12/16” is pure musical joy to me. I’m literally moved by it; my body is forced to dance before my conscious mind knows what’s happening. There’s a sense of surprise in that moment, we’ve just been swimming in Karen Meat’s beautiful harmonies and suddenly we’re stumbling around the dance floor soaking wet. She keeps the listener off-guard, too, with confrontational lyrics presented in a droll tone, like when she opens the song “Sad” with the all-time great line “I want to barf on you” and the song is so pretty that you’re perfectly willing to be barfed on. And on “Doo Wop” we find ourselves grooving along while she drops casually devastating revelations like “My consciousness is eating up my brain.”
Arin Eaton, the creator of Karen Meat, used to write and play country music and while sonically this tape is a long way from Rocky Top Tennessee, I’ve always connected with that side of her artistry. It’s definitely present in the directness and clarity of her lyrics, and I hear a little Kitty Wells in her voice too. And when it comes to singing about getting wasted… well, she’s drunk like the best of them.