Friday, June 13, 2008

Oeuvre: Swervedriver

In this new feature, we’ll take an artist who’s put out at least four albums and go through each one in succession with a focus on career arc an the importance of each record in a historical context. Kind of like a bizarro First Blush. Today’s artist is Swervedriver who are reunited and playing Metro tomorrow night. If you are remotely close to the Chicago area and not already going, you are a confused fool. OK, I don’t really mean that. But I do mean that. Tickets are still available so go get you some!

The band’s first release, 1991’s Raise, opens with pounding drums and churning, distortion-laden guitars. From the first instant, you know you are being pulled along by force. Sci-Flyer, the opening track, is five minutes of pure driving power. But when the album was released, it was unlike anything we’d heard before. The thick fuzz already associated with shoegazer rock was bolstered by precise yet heavy drums and matched with lead singer Adam Franklin’s whispered crooning. His vocals are buried deep within the mix and are clearly not the featured instrument on this record.

By the time you get to Track 3, Son of Mustang Ford, the urge to nod your head along with the near frantic beat is overwhelming. This song was their first single, the band’s introduction for most fans. Starting fast and intense, it only becomes more so as the track cooks along. The most clear vocals yet are delivered with zeal, “Been driving for daaaaayyyys now. Oh yeah!” Needless to say, you believe Franklin. Many of the songs on the record feel like instrumentals. The vocals are simply another instrument included in the mix. There quite simply hadn’t been an album like this before. As it progresses, the songs lose a bit of steam. The punchier, more grabby tunes are in the first five tracks. Track 8, Sandblasted, picks the intensity back up and features one of the best coda transitions in rock n roll. The album’s closer, Lead Me Where You Dare…, is the perfect way to wind things down. A step back in intensity and ardor, as if we are coasting to a stop. One could argue the band was a one-trick pony at this point, but it was a trick nobody else had yet learned, at least not to the point where they could perform it with the same flair. The release rightfully garnered a ton of attention and portended optimism for their immediate future.

If Raise took you on a ride at its outset, Mezcal Head sends you into orbit. Starting from silence with crashing drums and feedback, as soon as you get a feel for the beat, the guitars turn evil and the drums catch fire before everything finally breaks near the three minute mark so you can catch your breath. From there, we go straight into Duel, the album’s first single. It is now clear that the band has evolved, but maintained its penchant for unique rhythms. The sound is more streamlined and Franklin’s vocals are featured more than before. It’s catchy and complex at the same time.

The album ebbs and flows, going from manic pace to perfectly mixed calmer interludes until it reaches its centerpiece, Last Train to Satansville. The train is clearly careening off the rails, but keeping its pace anyway. You’d get off out of concerns for personal safety, but you’re enjoying the ride too much. It’s the kind of song that you should never listen to while driving because you know you’re going to get in a wreck, yet listening while stationary is somehow insufficient.

The album continues with rich sound and a certain level of aggression until Duress, an eight minute song that fits into a deep gully of sound. If Swervedriver ever had a true shoegazer song, this is it. The last track is the nearly 12 minute Never Lose That Feeling/Never Learn. It begins as a quick rocker but descends into a drawn out extended riff featuring a sax solo that somehow fits in perfectly. The the proverbial come-down after an especially intense acid trip, it eases you back to earth, letting you savor the album’s conclusion. One of the best albums I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing, it sounds as fresh as it did in 1993. It has a certain indescribable perfection, but while you’re listening to it, you know you’re experiencing greatness. There isn’t one bad song, and you can play it over and over again. With two superb outputs behind them, the world expected great things from Swervedriver.

Unfortunately, success was almost impossibly fleeting as Swervedriver quickly became starcrossed. Various record label label jerks, a-holes, and morons led to the band being dropped multiple times. Consequently, their third album, Ejector Seat Reservation, was never released in the US. Perhaps appropriately, the first song is an instrumental titled “Single Finger Salute.” The first two real tracks are catchier than anything Swervedriver had delivered before, but lack some of the edge that had differentiated them from their peers. The sound is still rich and full, but it was clear that the band was no longer the aggressive machine on display from before. Track 4, Son of Jaguar ‘E’, brings in an acoustic guitar. Swervedriver has now turned a page and is starting to point in the direction that will later become Franklin’s solo project, Toshack Highway. What we get over the rest of the album is a further turn towards the poppy and upbeat. A nice gem late in the album is How Does it Feel to Look Like Candy?, so sweet it makes sugar taste like salt. EJR is a new kind of Swervedriver, and not what I feel they do best. But there are those who believe this is their best album, and they make a persuasive argument. Unfortunately since it was not released in the states, few here got the opportunity to judge. It is without question good music, even if the distinctiveness is somewhat stripped away.

Three years later, the band gave it one more go, but not without further torture from record labels. Geffen was set to release the album in early 1997 and then changed their mind and dropped the band. 99th Dream kicks off with a bit more edge than the previous release, but the poppier approach continues. The songs, be they dark or bright, are more soulful than we’ve heard before. The album fails to grab your attention in the way that Swervedriver is capable. Track 6, Stellar Caprice, is a sweet and spooky instrumental. It leads in to the most powerful song on the album, Wrong Treats. On this song, you can feel a bit of their old intensity coming through again.

The album's last track, Behind the Scenes of The Sounds & The Times, is a seven minute driving piece of psychedelic soul. The last song we would ever hear from the band, it lacks the artistry of previous album closers, but is nonetheless a great way to say goodbye. Adam Franklin expressed frustration with the recording process, as the album went through many machinations on its way to completion. It's clearly not their best, but the songs are still solid and with a bit more edge could be compelling live. While it doesn't match their previous projects, there's still a lot to love on this final release.

The band parted ways after 99th Dream. Their fans assumed they would never get the chance to hear them again. The closest we could get was Franklin performing an acoustic rendition of Last Train to Satansville at Schuba's in 2000. But now they're back. They have made no decisions about going back into the studio and are simply enjoying their current tour. Once agian, they play Metro tomorrow. Have you purchased your tickets yet? See you there!


David K Roberts said...

Thanks for the history...this makes tomorrows show more enjoyable. See you there!

D said...

Great job with the discography. I'll be there tonight with the proverbial bells on.

Anonymous said...

Just checked out Mezcal Head.. Good stuff (new to me). It's like a great salad of everything shoegazer/90's rock. Once again reading Fighting the Youth pays off!