Iowa City band Crystal City’s newest record Bartenderly molds midwestern milieu into 17 tracks of honest-to-goodness barroom rockers and ballads — the kind not heard from perhaps since the Replacements dragged their lager-soaked poetry to the masses. It’s clear that Dave Helmer and Sam Drella worship at the Temple of Westerberg with their loose and quick first-take don’t-look-back approach to chugging rock and roll.
The driving beat and the swirling electric guitars with the almost contrary mellow harmonies give track nine, “The Haps Dude,” a dark tension and sinister image of work stress. “You stumble through life like you’re at the end of your rope. You’re over-caffeinated, under appreciated, yeah we’ve heard that joke.”
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Similarly, they have nailed his pretty and confessional ballads of heartache. “Made You Laugh” opens with sparkling acoustic guitars offset by a melody counterpoint on dirty electric guitar. “I told you a story and then you left; it made you smile, it made you laugh. I hope that the story wasn’t too intense. I could have exposed a bit of my nonsense.”
The desire for escape from stress and heartache, as with life sometimes, leads us to drink — and if Bartenderly isn’t a concept album, it is at least an album with a theme: A little bit of escape is needed, whether you visit the “Liquor Store” in track four, drink that 30-pack of beer and stay up late in “Summertime’s Here” or maybe have some “Rock & Roll Coffee” in track 13.
It may be a side effect of reviewing records from Iowa, but sometimes I run across an album that uncannily captures my experiences living here. When I find these, I tend to listen to them repeatedly — the aural equivalent of staring in the mirror, I suppose. Crystal City’s Bartenderly reminds me of when summer was never long enough, and every day we busted out of work like it was the last day of school and headed to a landscape dotted with beer kegs and bars where romance was just around the next corner.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 225.