Swell – …Well?

   1993 Def American

I clearly remember my first exposure to the unsung musical entity known as Swell.   It was in 1993 and I was in a store called Mushroom Records just off the Tulane campus in New Orleans (don’t look for it…it’s not there anymore).  On the TV in the store, there was a show playing that looked to be a closed-circuit music video program possibly originating from the Tulane campus itself.

I dunno, but I remember a cute female host introducing the video and after being mesmerized by her eyes I was then mesmerized by the song she had just introduced.  It was the leadoff track of this wonderful disc, “At Long Last.”  I was so entranced by the song, I couldn’t remember anything about the video.  Thanks to YouTube, I’ve been able to relive that moment many times.  Swell has numerous cool videos on YouTube that are well worth checking out.

This CD is just overflowing with personality, humor, a perfect blend of acoustic and electric guitar, and great esoteric pop songwriting.   As far as I’m concerned, anything vocalist/guitarist/chief songwriter David Freel is involved with is worth a good listen and this CD is a great starting point for the uninitiated.  The overall sound is intimate, but what I think sends that intimacy over the top is the drum sound.  Sean Kirkpatrick sounds like he’s playing right there…right in front of you.

As well as the otherworldly “At Long Last,” this CD is loaded with winners.   It’s a disc full of smoky, ethereal melodies and hooks that seem to pop out of nowhere.  “Everything,” “Turtle Song” (with a really nifty drum groove courtesy of Mr. Kirkpatrick) and “Tired” deliver an undeniably clever mix of electric and acoustic guitar textures, shadowy atmospheres and melodic hooks delivered with Freel’s somber and intimate vocal stylings.  Again, with all due respect, it’s almost like Lou Reed singing on key.  “Wash Your Brain” gets my vote for the second best track here.

The whole thing is held together with a sly and quite goofy sense of humor as evidenced with the salting of interludes consisting of what appear to be outtakes of an old man making a homemade demo tape.  In an inadvertently funny moment, he stumbles through a spoken word lamentation of show business (“Showbizz”) where he mutters about the good and the bad, saying “you have to cherish the bad and put up with the good.”  The most light-hearted moment, however, is when he plays a very echoey sounding piano lounge tune (“Soda Jerk Fountain”).

It’s almost silly how much I love this band.  I remember back in 1998 when my then-wife and I moved to Dallas, TX, I had written a song that I played at my live solo acoustic shows and I called it “Swell.”  This is because, while I’m proud of the song, it’s admittedly a rip-off…ahem…TRIBUTE to the band.  On a goof, I emailed them and told them about the song and left my phone number.   Out of the blue, I got a call from then-bassist Monte Vallier saying they’d love to hear it, so I sent them a copy.  Don’t know if they actually heard it – it was a poor recording, so I hope they didn’t – but it was just another really cool memory I have that’s associated with this band.

If all this sounds just a tad out of the ordinary, that’s just because Swell is exactly that.  There’s just simply no one else like them.

Rating:  5 out of 5


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