Album Review: Jeff Stagg — ‘Basement Views’


Within 10 seconds of hitting play on Jeff Stagg’s Basement Views I had to double check that I hadn’t hit play on a Todd Snider album.

While Stagg is more lyrically agnostic than Snider, thematic overlaps make it clear they have at least some of the same thoughts in their minds. That sentiment should help gauge your level of interest in the 10-track sophomore album from Stagg, a Des Moines-based folk-country artist.

While I don’t know if songs from Snider like “Talking Reality Television Blues” or “Conservative, Christian, Right Wing Republican, Straight, White, American Males” influenced Stagg (more likely, he and Snider simply share similar influences), both songs came to mind early in this album.

Lyrical theming throughout touches on a disconnect between generations, social alienation and some gentle existentialism in an album that’s primarily concerned with the melancholic recollection of bygone days.

Despite this only being Stagg’s second album, he’s been writing and performing on the regular in central Iowa, though has dipped into the east side of the state on occasion. In particular, those who’ve frequented the Des Moines Farmers Market or Iowa State Fair have likely encountered his music at least in passing.

In the opening track, “Quiet Day,” Stagg lyrically introduces us to reflective and simple lyrics that exist alongside instrumentation that is generally limited to a simple guitar and harmonica — though Jon Locker appears on bass for this first. The other exceptions to this are “Need a Honky Tonk Tonight,” which brings in pianist Justin Appel, and “She Ain’t Ever Had the Blues,” which features both Appel and Locker.

While the talent of everyone involved is apparent on “She Ain’t Ever Had the Blues,” the song itself feels a touch out of place, a bit too upbeat for this particular album. Besides that, it isn’t sonically distinct to leave much of an impression.

When Appel returns for “Need a Honkey Ton Tonight,” Appel’s graceful work on the keys marries an optimistic tone with Stagg’s sorrowful, longing lyrics. The song not only blends with the rest of the album but, like “Quiet Day,” is one of the highlights.

The influence of artists like Bob Dylan is more strongly felt in the back half, particularly in songs like “Is it Cold in Chicago.” A composition that waxes about a bygone relationship, wishing a former love well while also pondering what could have been and inviting what might still be.

The final song “Great Day (FlexOnCancer)” is optimistic while maintaining a sense of belonging on the album. It’s a song for appreciation of the little things — walking around the block, holding hands, seeing a sunrise — and is a heartwarming send-off to a formidable folk/country album.

This article was originally published in Little Village’s May 2023 issues.