The Englert Theatre, Iowa City’s 100-year-old performing arts venue took it upon itself to craft a sonic tribute celebrating one of the most diverse and culturally vibrant communities in the Midwest. By commissioning 31 musicians and bands and handing them the task of creating songs inspired by experiences or impressions of Iowa City, the result is the sprawling Iowa City Song Project, an all-encompassing artistic reaction to the influential community constantly on the frontline of musical expression.
The album strikingly matches the diverse selection of musical tastes that can be found in Iowa City on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps appropriately, a strong selection of grass roots Americana is present here while its oppositions fall more toward the avant-garde side of the spectrum that fit perfectly with the numerous forms of experimentation and forward thinking that springs from a college town.
With a CD/LP release consisting of twenty stand-alone tracks in addition to eleven more digitally downloadable tunes, the Englert has successfully managed to turn a potentially daunting task into a seamless assembly of songs that merge into a comprehensive representation worthy of this great city.
Fittingly, hometown heroes such as Bo Ramsey and Greg Brown both provide highlights on this collection, with each bringing their soulful delivery and chilling guitars to the forefront of their contributions. Brown’s daughter Pieta also provides a memorable track with her subtly self-aware “Doesn’t Take Long,” a poignant tribute to a city that mirrors the comforts of home and family.
Another standout track is Brooks Strause’s “Strange City,” a particularly proud anthem with a liberating saxophone echoing after the the refrain of “This is my city // this is my strange city,” forming a unifying badge of honor for all those who inhabit it.
Present throughout several tracks is an undeniable theme of the famous ‘Iowa City Summer,’ most notably Greg Brown’s “Summer Sun,” Alex Body’s “The Rules of Summer,” and Wet Hair’s dream-like waltz “The North-Dodge Alleyway.” All three of these tunes embody a differing form of the sonic landscape and yet all seem to capture the essence of the weightless freedom that occupies Iowa City from the months of May through August.
It is truly undeniable some of the visual images these songs can’t help but conjure up, particularly of the many memorable spaces that occupy downtown Iowa City. Several songs here develop at a patient pace, allowing for the listener to bask in the nostalgia that arises from the airwaves. The soothing track “So It Goes” from Caroline Smith and Jesse Schuster demonstrates this effect as the guitar and voice meld into a unified force of comfort and quiet remembrance.
While folk is the primary ingredient present on “Iowa City Song Project,” the album offers a healthy dose of rock ‘n’ roll as well as experimental music to encapsulate the diverse nature of the Iowa City music scene. The one-two punch of The Poison Control Center’s “Old Capital City” and Emperors Club’s “Strings” capture the ever-exciting Iowa City nightlife, while Rene Hall’s “A Short Walk” deftly molds classical piano with a sample of experimental sounds.
The LP concludes with Lwa’s unassuming composition “A Town of Tin Crowns.” This haunting arrangement strikingly displays the quiet sunrise that greets a city always ready for the day’s work. The presence of experimentation and constant progress perfectly mirrors the city of Iowa City, a fitting conclusion to an album celebrating a city that continues to thrive with cultural and musical activity.