Big in Iowa

Big in Iowa

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Big in Iowa's debut finds them with lots of nervy (but never sloppy) energy and plenty of rock & roll thrust, and although they had not found their particular niche yet, it is still a promising, if inconsistent, album. Bob Burns had not yet hit upon the mature vocal style he would perfect by the next album (the Van Morrison-style mannerisms are just starting to surface on Big in Iowa). He more often sings in a high, lonesome wail, which, for all its expressiveness, can occasionally come across as affectation, as it does on the brooding opening song, "Start My Life," which immediately references two country-rock staples: drinking and living on the road. A travelling (or moving) theme surfaces throughout the album, and it would be a central theme in subsequent work as well, but at this stage in their career, it comes off a tad less than convincingly. The band had not entirely developed the rip-snorting instrumental prowess and road-savvy confidence that would blossom by the second recording. Still, the album already displays a roots band that could be exceeding robust one moment, pounding out a churning rocker, and spin out something approaching delicacy in the next ("Engine 883"). The songwriting from Burns and bassist Ken Glidewell is solid throughout even though it can be a bit too grounded in the conventional genre fold at times, giving some of the tunes a lackluster sameness, while it is incompletely formed at others. Surprisingly, however, the album shows more musical (if not thematic) variation than Big in Iowa's subsequent efforts had a tendency to show. Overall the album is not as universally strong as either of their next two recordings, but they investigate several paths that would eventually get lost somewhat as they developed their signature sound, showing a penchant for mournful balladry and garage rock ("Mother Nature") in the process. The opening bars of "Cindy" even hint that they could play fragile folk-rock pretty convincingly if they wanted, before the song kicks into a bar-band rocker, and "Mr. Becky" opens with a riff that could almost be construed as heavy metal while the melody has some Beatlesque turns. Mostly, Big in Iowa shows what a strong club/bar band they were at the time. It has a live feel to it, and by the end you feel like you have just spent a night out at the local pub, drinking pitchers of cheap beer and allowing the music to articulate all the depressing (and a few of the happy) moments that characterize your life. It makes for a spirited, if not entirely satisfying, first step for what would become one of the strongest Midwestern roots rock bands during the latter half of the 1990s.