Rescued From Obscurity
By Noel Murray
Swell, Too Many Days Without Thinking (Beggars
AUGUST 18, 1997: If you follow bands like Pearl Jam or Nine Inch Nails, you probably don't have a problem finding out what they're up to--a cursory glance at the entertainment periodicals is enough to discover plans for new albums, future tours, and any other project that may be in the works. But if the groups you follow are less popular--or downright obscure--then you tend to be out of the loop. Unless a band happens to release a new record, they could, for all you know, be broken up and back working at Denny's while you wait around like the last man at the bus stop.
If someone had asked me a few months ago what had happened to San Francisco's Swell and Nova Scotia's Sloan--two bands that graced my 1994 "best of" list--I would've bet money that they had played their last notes. Yet here they are, each back with new releases, and each with a different approach to their craft.
Swell actually were down for the count, having been released from their label, American Records, after the poor sales of their last album, the remarkable 41. The band's sound--marked by rat-a-tat drumrolls, tightly picked acoustic guitar rhythms, fuzzed-out lead guitar, and spacy vocals--just couldn't wedge its way into a modern-rock radio format dominated by bombast, rage, and sloppiness. Stung by a royalty deal that required Swell to release records on American, bandmembers David Freel and Monte Vallier contemplated regrouping under a different name with a different personality.
Instead, they left San Francisco and booked studio time in New York and L.A. With 10 tracks in the can, they struck a deal with Beggar's Banquet (a kind of purgatory for well-intentioned bands--Buffalo Tom, The Fall, and The Wedding Present have all trod water there). Now Swell have put out what may be their best album--a tight collection of well-worked songs alive with presence and passion.
Judging by the sound of Too Many Days Without Thinking, Swell's travails didn't shake their confidence or their sound; this is unmistakably a Swell album, right down to the rat-a-tats. At the same time, the group has opened up its music a little from the dark, confined spaces of 41. The record has a warmer tone, and more songs work in major keys and up tempos. The vocals, too, are a little sharper, even if the lyrics remain firmly lodged in the stratosphere of obscurity.
In fact, even songs with seemingly straightforward titles like "What I Always Wanted" and "Fuck Even Flow" veer off into the ether. The lyrics of the former tune simply alternate between the title and the line "Now I'm failing to come down," before switching to a litany of regrets. The latter is a recital of non sequiturs that seemingly have nothing to do with the monster Pearl Jam hit referenced in the title. (It's also the band's catchiest song and, perversely, their most profane.)
This is what makes Swell's music so compelling. Their feet are firmly planted, while their heads are off having adventures they can only half-relate. If they refuse to change much, it's only because they're happy with who they are. When they catch hold of a song as fresh and original as "When You Come Over"--which features a guitar that skips across the vocals like a rock traversing a pond--the listener is pretty happy to meet the band on their own turf.
Sloan's story is similar to Swell's, yet different. Sloan too were dropped by their label (DGC) after weak sales, and they too dispersed to contemplate new avenues. After two albums of catchy (if generic) '90s rock, they found themselves lost in the special fog that surrounds good bands sometimes. And as it happened, Weezer, another group with a similar sound but a cutesier gimmick, had snuck into the mainstream and squeezed Sloan out.
So Sloan's return to the game, unlike Swell's, finds the band playing with a new set of rules. Their pure pop songcraft remains intact, but they've abandoned the pretense of modernity. Instead of trying to be a freshly scrubbed Nirvana, Sloan are pitching themselves as a scuffed-up Badfinger. On One Chord to Another, which was actually released in Canada last year, Sloan marry crunchy guitar rock to sweet harmonies and classic melodies that wouldn't sound out of place between Chicago and Boston on the '70s rock map.
The album opens with a fake audience, cheering for the band as they launch into the Cheap Trick-ish "The Good in Everyone." Later on the album, Sloan sonically reference Stealer's Wheel on "The Lines You Amend," T. Rex on "Take the Bench," and Wings on "Anyone Who's Anyone." A blast of horns and a bouncy rhythm guitar on "Everything You've Done Wrong" recall "Saturday in the Park," and the power chords on "400 Metres" could've been lifted from Big Star's Radio City.
Is all this retro posing mere opportunism--an attempt to curry the record-buying public's favor by subconsciously reminding them of old songs? Frankly, when the music is this entertaining, motives don't much matter. Besides, Sloan's weakness in the past was that their melodic and lyrical cleverness sounded incongruous with their clumsy noise-rock pose. The sprightly sound of the '70s better suits the band's sensibilities, so that even precious ballads like "Autobiography" are redeemed by the texture of nostalgia.
Which is not to say that Sloan's archness is above reproach. "Autobiography," "Nothing Left to Make Me Want to Stay," and "Junior Panthers" are listenable but sound too much like throwback novelties. Those three tunes, however, are the exceptions. The rest of One Chord Leads to Another is enjoyably assured. It's not so much that the band is flailing for a marketable sound; rather, they've finally found a sound that suits them. Even if they disappear off the face of the earth after this album, Sloan will have made their mark. One listener, at least, will miss them.
Thank goodness for Lost Blues and Other Songs, a collection of singles that appropriately spotlights Oldham's talent and effectively explains why his fans are so rabid. It's not just that the album collects hard-to-find gems like "Ohio River Boat Song" and "Valentine's Day"; it also puts these songs in a worthy context. For once, Oldham's rotating core of musicians work to good effect--Lost Blues has a welcome variety of sounds. Even though the songs' rambling-folkie structures never vary, at least the instrumentation shifts from time to time.
More importantly, Lost Blues shows a progression and a commitment to a concept. Oldham has been accused of being willfully slack and of playing at primitivism. But here, it's clear that his emphasis on raw rusticity has a purpose; he plays off the folk-music tradition, creating tension and excitement as his songs teeter toward the edge of abstraction. That said, his music has gotten slicker over the years, as evidenced by the brilliant single "West Palm Beach" b/w "Gulf Shores"--two pretty ballads about the pleasures and stresses of idleness.
The legacy of '90s indie rock is in its singles--and its singles collections. Palace Music's career-summing anthology joins the ranks of Unrest's BPM and Pavement's Westing (By Musket and Sexant) as the disc to pick up if you want to know why these bands matter.
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