Swell appeared out of San Francisco in 1990 with a self-released eponymous LP on their 'Psycho-Specific' label. It was intended at the time as a one-off record for the band, who fully expected to be split up within months of its release. But something happened. Blame the interest on fellow left-field American 'rock' artists American Music Club and Red House Painters at the time if you like, but 'Swell' received great plaudits, and won the group at least more than the handful of fans they maybe expected. They followed the success of the eponymous LP with the much loved and lauded '...well?' LP (issued by the Mean label in the UK, who also issued the debut). Compared by some to the aforementioned American Music Club, it was a record that for others saw Swell take over the mantle of Eitzel's group by staying quirky and on the fringes of rock at a time when AMC seemed to be ploughing more of a trad Rock furrow. With the release of this record it became obvious that Swell had a very recognisable voice. David Freel's vocal was obviously a major part of this, but his guitar was similarly instantly stamped with a Swell signature (encompassed best, perhaps, on the great opening of 'At Long Last' - the blueprint for the best Swell sounds if ever there was). Things flowed, moved around on a groove supplied by Monte Vallier and distinctive drumming by Sean Kirkpatrick that was insistently shuffling, somehow hard and soft all at once. It sounded very Country, assuming your Country was inhabited by odd winos or slightly mumbling visionaries. In light of this it was fine to hear an extra quirk on '...well?' supplied by then 60 year old Richard McGhee, a wannabe night-club singer/entertainer. Marvellously strange. They signed to American Records (released through Beggars Banquet in the UK) after this and there released the difficult third LP, '41'. This was their darkest record, a stripped down collection that nevertheless sounded denser than anything else. There were more acoustic guitars on this, and although it retained the trademark Swell sound, it was less easy to listen to. It was more threatening, bleaker than before, and in the light of the times it failed to make much of an impact. At a time when to be noticed you had to essentially be loud and stubbornly electric, Swell had gone quieter and more acoustic. In short, Swell were not rooted firmly enough in traditional rock mores to be easily marketed as a Big Rock Band, and perhaps lacked the contacts to put them on the map in the world of the American Underground Art movement gone global industry. Certainly they did not fit in. Whatever, American Recordings ditched the band and left them in the hinterland for a few years, where even old fans thought they had been true to the word of their initial intentions pre-'Swell' and had split for good. Not so, however, as the release this March (or February if you're an American cousin...) on Beggars Banquet of their fourth LP proves. 'Too Many Days Without Thinking' shares a title with the one-off Sub-Pop 'Summer Songs' single, but a name is just about all that it has in common. This LP is the most easily accessible Swell record to date. It's cleaner, clearer, lighter in tone musically than the previous releases and has a foundation that takes the old easy shuffle and makes it harder and stronger without losing the surface texture that has always been important to the Swell sound. There's more of a feeling of inner strength in this record than ever before. More of a steeled gaze and a challenging set of mouth. It's the most confident sounding that Swell have ever been. David Freel has his guitar set to attack more often here, and he says 'fuck' more often than before. That's 'fuck' as in 'fucked up' and 'you'd better fucking believe it'. There's even a tune called 'Fuck Even Flow'. Part of the cause of the changes may be down to production, here managed by the group in association with Kurt Ralske, ex of Ultra Vivid Scene and Crash infamy. There may certainly be a case to be put that the Ralske input has added the spaciousness that exists more obviously in the mix here than on other records. Not that Swell have not always been good at evoking space. All their records, and particularly '...well?', and now this new one, have been strong at evoking the feeling of movement through an environment, specifically a motorised movement. They work well as internal soundtracks to external travels, and vice versa as required. So it's more of an obvious rock record than before, but it's still got its great Country folk roots. What they do best here and in the past is marry the acoustic and the electric with such ease and skill. It's the juxtapositions that they pull off which make them so cool, and it's partly this which makes the sound sashay in an atmosphere akin to those conjured by antipodean groups like the Jean Paul Sartre Experience or The Clean. They also show off that same knack for marrying some sweet melodies with bitter lyrics and darker noises. It's a record, however, that still refuses to allow Swell to take up easy residency in any fashionable niche. As before, Swell are still neither traditional enough in approach to be embraced wholeheartedly by the Rock establishment, yet are probably not obviously experimental enough to be welcomed into any post-rock camp. This is a great shame, because Swell have at last made an LP that is both familiar enough to appeal to established fans, and commercial enough to be appreciated by newcomers. You'd be dumb to miss it, quite frankly.
Alistair Fitchett (Feb. 1997)
| San Franciscan
band returns with Beggars debut
To many, San Francisco is the place of Rice-A-Roni,Cable Cars and Tony Bennett's misplaced heart. The City By The Bay however is actually all about pioneering spirits, The Gold Rush, Alcatraz, and the gabled, bay-windowed houses that survived the massive 1906 quake are all testaments to the strength and character that pervades the Northern Californian City. Swell,comprised of David Freel, Monte Vallier and Sean Kirkpatrick could be the product of no other environment.
Formed in the summer of '87, Swell quickly rose to prominence in the San Francisco music scene. A series of independently released and promoted albums "Swell" and "Well?"on their own pSycho-sPecific Records in the early 1990s captured the ears of music lovers around the world. Before long part of the band were busking throughout Europe with all their belongings stashed in "a piece of shit Renault", while the others were busy promoting their records back home. Their hard work and determination eventually lead to a John Peel Session and a minor role in the Griffin Dunne motion picture "The DukeOf Groove".
The Swell tide eventually washed up an international recording deal with the then nascent def american label (now american recordings). The band's major debut "41", released in 1994, was heralded a critical success by such tastemakers as Melody Maker ("one of the best surprises I've had in along while"), Alternative Press ("Swell write songsfull of depth, with a steady rhythm and a swirling guitar sound to put the rest of those psychedelic cyborgs to shame.") and The Houston Press ("One of the very few albums that I fully expect to be pulling out of the pile ten years from now...").
"Too Many Days Without Thinking", titled quite literally from "too many days without thinking of anything else but this fucking record", is the result of over a years worth of experimentation. "We didn't want to make the same record again" explains bassist Vallier. "We knew we wanted to go in a slightly different direction. We wrote songs and re-wrote songs and recorded a lot and re-recorded songs and chopped songs up into different parts. We did a lot of experimentation just trying to push ourselves."
A Swell record is similar in nature to its marine namesake. It starts with a barely detectable current and slowly evolves into a bursting and heaving emotional torrent. "We do all the writing on tape, we don't jam." says Vallier. "David comes in with an acoustic guitar, a set of chords,a vocal melody and a couple of words and just slaps down ideas on tape. We then start to add bass, electric guitar, keyboard parts and drums and start to play off each other. It evolves from everybody's collaborative effort."
"Too Many Days Without Thinking" was started in the band's San Francisco home studio, which had given birth to all three previous recordings. Looking for new inspiration mid-way through the record the members headed for Los Angeles and then ended up completing the recording in New York. "Environment is very important on Swell records", exclaims Vallier, "that's why we couldn't finish the record in Los Angeles. That environment was wrong and we didn't know that until we went there. New York was awesome, it pulled it all together for us."
It was in New York that Swell enlisted the help of Ultra Vivid Scene mainman Kurt Ralske. "Kurt was our sounding board, we brought the songs to New York and he helped us re-record them. He would make comments like 'yeah, I think that's great', or 'I think that you should try this' so we pretty much had everything thought out but he was the objective outsider who would tell us yes or no."
The album, enhanced visually by drummer Sean Kirkpatrick's chalk drawings, includes the lead single "The Trip" a self described love song that has nothing to do with travel and everything to do with a particular style of woman and "Throw The Wine" an "allegorical, metaphorical kind of thing that doesn't really have anything to do with religion but it's kind of like if Jesus at the Last Supper instead of offering the wine and saying this is my blood and getting ready to be crucified, just took the bottle of wine and smashed it against the wall and said 'Fuck You I'm going to live, I'm not dying for you'."
The band are currently promoting "Too Many Days Without Thinking" in southwestern United States with homegrown support act Treble Charger, including a showcase date at SXSW. They will then travel to Europe and return to North America in the late spring for what will likely be a string of Canadian dates.
- Beggars Banquet (1997)