It may sound obvious but it really does need to be said: Iowa isn’t just on the way to a place; it’s a place.
The idea of Iowa as a place with its own culture and history and art is probably utterly foreign to the majority of nationally touring bands that are forced by Google maps to drive through, and maybe stop and play a show in, Iowa when heading west from Chicago or south from Minneapolis or east from Omaha or north from St. Louis.
But in a tangible way one Iowa institution has helped to counter the idea of Iowa as just on-the-way-to-a-place. 2016 marks the 10th anniversary of Daytrotter. The name alone conveys a sense of quality, taste, and fabulously colorful illustrations. And it has become a Midwestern underground landmark.
The website began with a simple conceit: Get in touch with bands that are passing through the Midwest and ask them to record a live session in a small upstairs office space in the Quad Cities. But the directors of the site became quick arbiters of taste by devoting themselves to exceptionally good, if not widely known, bands and by pairing their sessions with impressionistic essays by the site’s founder Sean Moeller. The sonic quality of the recordings is also very distinctive: An aural warmth conveys the friendly and welcoming atmosphere that the recording engineers provide. And then there are the illustrations by Johnnie Cluney: Daytrotter is a strong visual brand thanks to the hand-drawn, psychedelic, comic book-style drawings of bands that accompany the sessions and often seem to perfectly capture the artists’ personalities.
Daytrotter is also incredible for having dramatically expanded its operation over the years rather than staying in a hobbyist’s comfort zone. While the Quad Cities studio still records sessions daily (including dozens of Iowa bands), Daytrotter has also added partnering studios in Austin, San Francisco, Nashville, London, and New York, among other places. They now post multiple sessions every day.
Meanwhile, they’ve grown in their ability to book sessions with not only top contemporary acts like Grimes, Macklemore, Jason Isbell, and Alabama Shakes but also with legends of music including Carly Simon, The Zombies, Vic Chesnutt, and Kris Kristofferson. The consistent inter-mingling of up-and-coming talent with Hall of Famers and currently-charting acts is Daytrotter’s signature accomplishment.
The sessions now number in the many thousands and so picking out just ten is like fishing in a just-restocked kiddie pool in a Hy-Vee parking lot: Every time you cast you catch a good one. (Iowa is a place. Go to the grand opening of a Hy-Vee sometime.) Let’s narrow it down a bit and just pick ten great sessions from the dozens of Iowa-based bands that have recorded in the Rock Island studio over the years. Here’s to ten more years of Daytrotter.
Brooks Strause: Dec. 19, 2007: There are numerous Brooks sessions to choose from on the site but I’d recommend starting with the oldest one, from all the way back in 2007 in Daytrotter’s early days. The recordings include chilling renditions of some of Brooks’ greatest songs including the profound “The Fall” and the murderously bitter “Lady Heartless Desire.” But it’s the opening track that’ll really let you know who you’re dealing with: The country-punk Satanism of “You Gonna Need the Devil” is textbook foot-tapping blasphemy from a songwriter whose catalog has continued to blossom since.
Land of Blood and Sunshine: Jan. 8, 2016: This is one of the more upsetting and powerful bands that we have in Iowa, a group that slowly accumulates beats and sonic layers until the listener is awash in a cathartic but disorienting psychedelic soundstream. They have two sessions but start with their brand new one recorded early in 2016 where “Mind Rabbit” characteristically pairs a chunky guitar-thump with twee group vocals and “Bring Me Thunder” evokes a late-night conjuring, the sonic equivalent of pulling out a Ouija board at a sleepover only to find that spirits are actually assembling. “Everyone will finally see a light,” they sing. We see an absence of light too.
Samuel Locke-Ward vs. The Bassturd: Sept. 12, 2009: This session is a classic for a lot of reasons, not least for the memorable moment in the song “Now We Have Won” when Sam yells “Now everybody solo!” and a vivid cadenza arises. That solo section captures the spirit of the whole session as two of the greatest and most prolific Iowa-born songwriters of the past few decades throw ideas, instrumentation, voices, and rhythms into a shared evil vision. Samuel Locke-Ward and Dan Butler (The Bassturd) have written literally thousands of songs between them and their combined force in this brief and bizarre three-song session captures their shared essential mode of sarcastic aggro-pop. Once The Bassturd has finished “fucking you up, fucking you down,” you’ll probably opt for down. And then Sam ends the session with his superb mini-masterpiece “Please Don’t Think Poorly of Me,” which is maybe the prettiest song about saving face you’ll ever hear.
The Poison Control Center: Sept 4, 2007: Ames’ favorite sons have logged three awesome Daytrotter sessions but you’ve gotta be an aficionado and go back and start with their first from 2007. This is a really jangling and live set that includes ecstatic versions of beloved PCC classics like “Don’t Go” and “Magic Circle Symphony” but also touches the heart with the gorgeous piano-based “Losing to Living.” Daytrotter has excelled at capturing how a band feels and this session exemplifies that: you can damn near hear Devin and Pat rolling into a headstand as “you lose control, it doesn’t seem fair that you don’t know what you hit when you shoot it the air.” Years later, that shot is still lingering way, way up there in the air, not even closing to falling back to earth.
Extravision: Sept 7, 2015: Tireless guitar explorer Ryan Stier (whose previous band The River Monks have a great session too) lets loose a dynamic set of strangely disquieting songs that come across like dirges at first but lead to strong hooks. His deliberate pace as he strums or picks a 12-string guitar sets a magnetic aura. On “Waking Up” he conjures a demented take on George Harrison-like arrangements for an effect that replaces peaceful sleep with a confused feeling of waking up in a new place and thinking where the hell am I?
The Olympics: July 27, 2012: I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that The Olympics are the best currently active rock band in Iowa. That’s not really much a stretch: Their track record of constantly creating better and better and harder and harder and stranger and stranger music song by song is supreme. Their 2012 session (released on the opening day of the 2012 Olympic Games cuz lol) captures them at a moment in their progression with charming takes on some of their catchiest songs like “Gypsy Blood” and “Barefoot Blondes.” But catch them live today in 2016 and their newest material leaves even their best older tunes in the dust. They are due for a new sesh.
Annalibera: March 3, 2014: This has to rank among the most heartbreaking and beautiful sessions on the site, Iowan or otherwise. Crank it up and feel the ache. The head-bobbing, far-away guitar hook on “Black Cat, White Cat” is an omen, for sure. But singer Anna Gebhardt has a cheeky side too as she shows on the perfect “Love in a Recession,” which conjures up the sad romance of fucking out of boredom. Annalibera takes that feeling and scales it up to create a Song of the Times that will abandon you on the dance floor as soon as you close your eyes.
The Lonelyhearts: April 4, 2012: The two songwriters behind The Lonelyhearts are separated in space by a few states (Andre in Iowa, John in Colorado) but are connected artistically as though they meet in a shared consciousness space in central Nebraska. Their songwriting styles are deeply complementary: Where Andre as a lyricist finds cutting, jarring phrases to nail a feeling, John specializes in a dense swarm of details to richly evoke a setting or a character’s frame of mind. And then they masterfully load the arrangements with blended guitar and keys for a sound that is supra-synth, greater than the sum of its parts. The result is like watching a favorite comedy movie but replacing the soundtrack with the saddest album in your collection. The Lonelyhearts are lonely because they gift you an emotion but aren’t there when you open it. Their 2012 session peaks with the gorgeous waltz-time number “Autumn Percussion” in which the speaker marvels that he “don’t know what keeps [his] mouth out of the pistol, don’t know what keeps [his] nose out of the crystal.” Winter is around the corner indeed.
Monday Mourners: Dec. 9, 2015: Daytrotter has a strong catalog of classic and contemporary country singers including both legends like Charley Pride and Nashville stars of the moment like Kacey Musgraves. This session by the Des Moines trio Monday Mourners represents Iowa country well with a throwback, mid-tempo sound that recalls the ‘70s outlaw periods of greats like Waylon and Merle.
William Elliott Whitmore: May 28, 2009: Maybe no other Iowa artist is more perfectly suited to Daytrotter than the great William Elliott Whitmore. He’s Iowa born and bred, represents his home state in his music, is beloved around the world, and can be captured in essence in single-take renditions of powerful, death-obsessed country-blues. Start with this outstanding session from 2009 that kicks off with his all-time classic “Old Devils” and lets you know that we’re wrangling with an ancient soul here and he’s come to warm us against ourselves. A brand new session from Will was just posted this week and features songs from his forthcoming record.