As far as I can tell, Iowa City has moved on to spring. The markers dot the city. Everyone is cruising around on their bicycles, wind whipping through their hair. Ladies and gentlemen alike are swapping their duck boots and heavy coats for flip flops and shorts. The days are getting noticeably longer while the nights get warmer. The change of seasons is always a nice time to reassess your life. I did this, and it led me to shaving my head. I know that this doesn’t sound particularly remarkable; there are people who keep a bald head and have to shave it every few days. But in my case it required me to cut off eight and a half years of hair.
There were a number of reasons for doing this, but the primary one was that I wanted freedom. For those that have never had dreadlocks, one thing that happens is that they become a part of your life. You are no longer yourself; you are yourself and your dreadlocks. The frequent result is that people fail to see you and only acknowledge your dreadlocks. While others don’t mind it so much, I grew frustrated having to explain my hair to people again and again and again, or others making assumptions about me based on it. So, I hit the reset button.
At this point, you might be asking what the changing seasons and my hair have to do with music, the actual topic of this column. Well, the answer is simple: a lot. In one season or another, everyone has to get back to basics. Spring is a perfect time for this because winter is so extreme—the weather is so cold, the layers of clothes are so heavy, the stir craziness is so engulfing. It’s not until spring that you feel the essence of things once again, and this idea of minimalism transfers over to music. Think about your five favorite artists. Seriously. Most, if not all, have a very simple framework and execute it very, very well, whether they are a singer-songwriter or a metal band. The bands that fail are the ones that try to do too much. Almost always, it’s better to keep it simple and do it with flair than to try to do too many things.
This idea underlines all of this month’s recommendations. I’m going to start in a place that’s meant a lot to me as a hip-hop fan: the Bay Area. From E-40 and Too $hort to Rasco and Planet Asia, this scene has produced nothing but inspired albums from emcees with excellent technical abilities. A longtime contributor to this scene is Andre Nickatina who is coming to the Blue Moose on April 12. While his raps might not win awards for creativity, his precise flow, relaxed delivery and beat selection more than make up for it. His appearance at the Blue Moose is special because he is bringing Fashawn with him. Fashawn is a Fresno-based emcee that you need to put on your radar immediately: His flow is excellent, up there with new cats like Big K.R.I.T. and Kendrick Lamar.
Staying on the hip-hop tip, April 25 brings Shabazz Palaces to Gabe’s. Emcee Ishmael Butler a.k.a Palaceer Lazaro has a rap style that is off-kilter, surrealistic and streetwise. He raps over beats that are equally informed by the grime of the city and the vast expanse that is outer space. While this sounds really pretentious, the two mix to create a straightforward sound that is a smart, necessary update of the model constructed by the old school hip-hop pioneers Ultramagnetic MCs, who blended the outre rhymes of Kool Keith and the futuristic production of Ced Gee with an eye and ear for the street. It’s challenging yet still amazingly approachable for both hip-hop heads and indie rockers. Their debut album Black Up was one of my favorite albums from the past year.
And then there’s the Brooklyn-based alt-country band Country Mice. In most cases, alt-country is a word that I don’t like to use, but this quartet is different. They owe as much to noise rockers Dinosaur Jr. and Hüsker Dü as to Neil Young & Crazy Horse. Their guitars attack and are balanced smoothly by the rhythm section. The lyrics of lead singer Justin Rueger provide a melancholy beauty to the entire affair. The overall result is a sound that is pure country rock, twangy and raging. They make excellent music for drinking whiskey and hanging out in the dark recesses of a bar. These young men will be coming to the Mill, a place with many dark corners, on April 5. If you like any of the bands mentioned above or local country-rockers Grand Tetons, this is a show to put on your calendar.
The last band I want to talk about for April plays rock-and-roll music, pure and simple. Hailing from Oakland, Bare Wires is another band coming from the very potent Bay Area garage scene. Unlike some of their contemporaries like The Moonhearts, they are not bratty. Instead, they follow in the model of Ty Segall, playing in a melodic style with a psychedelic edge. Their sound is driving and urgent. It is reminiscent of either a faster Stooges or an updated Ramones. For me, it is the former. Others might find it to be the latter. No matter how you look at it, these guys know how to rock the stage. They will be visiting Gabe’s on April 5.
A.C. Hawley is still adjusting to his bald head. Do you have a tip? Email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @acethoughts.