Album review: Various artists, ‘New Roots Grow — A Benefit Compilation For The CRANDIC Corridor Derecho Storm Recovery’

I didn’t realize how much of what I’ve come to know as the Cedar Rapids area was about the trees. After the Aug. 10 derecho event cost the area an estimated 65% of its tree canopy cover, I have fleeting moments of feeling lost driving around town, with the usual landmarks gone. It’s kind of a country trope about the driving directions that involves “turning at the big oak,” but damn if that isn’t how I get around here.

Driving down Collins Road past whatever random numbered Rockwell building it is, there used to be a kind of wooded area that went for a couple of blocks. It’s totally gone — every tree — and now that spot is totally foreign, and I can’t figure out where a turn is, as stupid as that seems.

My own neighborhood is nestled in one of the more woodsy areas in town with the streets lined with canopies of mature trees. All of that is gone now; all that’s left is the stumps of trees where people chose to keep them. I can’t even remember where to turn off of Glass Road because the collection of nondescript evergreens at the corner are now missing, so now apparently I have to use a different landmark across the street for my bearings.

My friend Erik commented recently that Cedar Rapids will never return to where we were with trees here in our lifetimes. Even if all the trees are replaced, they would take decades to mature.

Enter New Roots Grow : A Benefit Compilation For The CRANDIC Corridor Derecho Storm Recovery. This is a MASSIVE 147-track, pay-what-you-want Bandcamp compilation of regional musicians who donated tracks to support two charities: the Marion, Iowa-based Trees Forever, who are looking to raise $5 million to replace trees in Cedar Rapids and the Intercultural Center of Iowa, which (per its About Us) provides “a wide variety of services which benefit the culturally-marginalized communities and members of the society.”

The collection was assembled by former Cedar Rapidians Ed Bornstein (currently of Chicago) and Andrew Cahak (Minneapolis), both part of the Cedar Rapids music scene when they lived here (Bornstein: the Occasions (Track #99), the Tanks; Cahak: Brian Jones). Exploring this compilation is the digital equivalent of crate digging. It boasts a wide variety of bands (sorted alphabetically, not by genre) in disparate styles with not a lot of context or even biographies. Many of the acts who contributed tracks will be familiar to readers of the Little Village music review section: Diplomats of Solid Sound, DICKIE, Jordan Sellergren, Younger, Surf Zombies, Anthony Worden, William Elliott Whitmore, Centaur Noir, Coolzey, Gloom Balloon and many more Iowa-based acts. But the compilation isn’t restricted to Iowa — when Bornstein and Cahak put the call out for tracks to be donated, they received songs from Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Louis and other Midwest cities.

“We started by reaching out to people we knew who we wanted on there,” Cahak explained in a chat session. “A particular focus for me was artists from the turn of the millennium because I came up with a lot of them. I wanted to get as many CR/IC artists from that era included as possible. Ed (my partner on this project) wanted to open things to current artists as well as folks from out of the area who wanted to help. Once we had a solid chunk of that material we opened submissions up to anyone.”

So how did they get to 147 tracks? “We didn’t expect quite as many submissions as we received,”Cehak said. “At first I thought we’d maybe get 25 or 30, but then we just started getting stuff, and then we decided we wanted to get 100. And then we got 47 more.”

Just looking over the acts, I can tell that word of mouth was behind a lot of it, due to how the acts are connected. Sarah Cram, for example, is from Cedar Rapids, and has been in bands around here for years. She knows Cahak (track #7) from when he was part of the post-hardcore combo Brian Jones (ringing in at #21 with a live version of “The Roaring 20’s”) who played around here a lot in the late ’90s (and whose other members are also on here individually: Mike Shulte at #88; Zac Naughton at #147).

Cram’s current bands are represented — the aforementioned Diplomats of Solid Sound and the Awful Purdies, who show up with a wonderfully smoky banjo-and-upright-bass propelled torch song “In The Dust.” “The memory / of you kissing me / is like a snake-bite’s/ venom” is a great lyric made even better with the dramatic pauses. And Cram’s husband Ben Driscoll drops “Business” from his recent outing Unseen Danger, which leans into Tom Waits territory.

Another connection is Penny Peach (without the “Jr.” this time), who contributed a different version of her March, 2020 track “Leddin It All Go Now.” She was the secret weapon for Anthony Worden’s last album. And then we have Eco-Lips honcho and Dr. Z’s Experiment harp-blower and singer Steve Shriver on two tracks. He works with Experiment guitarist and singer Ryan Phelan (who also has a solo track) on the reggae-tinged “Hopkins and Chance,” and a bouncy dub track with DJ Drez, “Feel It.”

Then we have four tracks from local musical Lapointes family: “When Amidst the Storm” by Allie; “Shine On You” by Nick, Allie and Aaron Strumpel; “Good Day” by Miles; and one produced by Grant: “Maybe Soon” by Jim Swim (a track I had on repeat).

A compilation of this size presents a challenge in how best to approach consuming it. As the old adage goes, “What’s the best way to eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” In preparation for this review, I tried to start at track one and just let it play through. A few hours later, I was only through the Bs! Inevitably, I’d hit a track from an act or artist I’d never heard of, do a Google search and then fall down the rabbit hole of listening to that band for a while.

Twin Cities musician Samuel Wilbur, aka Samuel and the Wilburbots, was one example of this: his track “Under My Spell” (#120) is a brilliant and dark, ’90s-style, guitar-driven piece of shoegaze pop. As I write this, I need to play it again. I’ll be back in a bit after I listen to his latest album, King Lear II.

Another example is the counterintuitive supergroup that includes William Elliott Whitmore and Lazerbeak (from the Twin Cities Hip Hop collective Doomtree) called Dope Walker. I’d heard about their debut LP Save Save, but never managed to spin it. Track #38, “Way Out,” a hazy, loose and wobbly march that reminds me of the Butthole Surfers at their most commercial, is from it. I’m writing a Post-It note right now to remind me to buy the vinyl of this album.

This compilation is striking in the audacity of its scale — an unintentional result of the overwhelming generosity of the artists who wanted to help. I’m not sure what a casual listener would do with this, but I hope people will donate and at least pick through the buffet of talent presented. For me, there’s enough music here that I will likely still be finding new favorite bands even a year from today as I dig through.

Where will we be a year from today? I honestly can’t picture it. But the megalithic New Roots Grow promises new music and a future with a little more foliage in it, and that’s worth supporting in my book. Even if we won’t see a return to where we were before the storm in our lifetimes, we can work to get there for the next generations by planting trees — and tunes — today.

New Roots Grow is available for a limited time through Nov. 6. That’s actually a perfect day to buy it, because it’s a Bandcamp Friday, where Bandcamp gives 100% of sale proceeds to the artists — and in this case, to the charities this compilation supports.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the date of the derecho.

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