Seattle, WA – Neumos – April 3, 2012 – I started to think about a unique angle I could take on my review of my 2nd Swervedriver show here in Seattle in the last 4 years. As a less than amateur, pseudo, pretend music journalist, I tend to find an angle on a show that I can ride to the realization of a halfway decent review. I might be over complicating this one, but I think maybe my path on this planet, as least since college, has been somewhat similar to that of the band Swervedriver.
Let me start with my history with the band and see if I can make this work, but don’t hold it against me too much if I abandon this approach altogether. I first came to hear Swervedriver as the music director of my undergrad college radio station in Plymouth, NH. The album I first heard was “Mezcal Head” and I loved it almost immediately. A great mix of British psychedelic, shoe gazer, wall of guitar sound with a bit of melody and pop mixed in, I was hooked. The A&M label rep who would call me about my radio rotation every week would laugh about how into them I was. He sent me a short VHS (yes, a video cassette) of a few videos from A&M at the time and I would watch the Swervedriver video for “Last Train to Satansville” over and over.
I listened to that album a lot, but other bands found my favor over the years. It was still one of those records I would drag out and enjoy periodically, it had legs. It didn’t sound old. I had a chance to see them open up for the band Hum at a small show at one of my favorite venues of all time – downstairs at the Middle East in Boston. There was hardly anyone there, but both bands sounded great and I loved the show. From there, I largely forgot about them.
Feeling nostalgic from time to time, I would look into bands I liked and what they’d been up to and found that Swervedriver had made a few other records. With the convenience of digital download, I had the rest of their catalog in a manner of minutes. Or so I thought. I thoroughly enjoyed exploring their “new” work. New to me at least. It was like the band had a whole new life. A band who never made it as big as their category partners – Pulp, Ride, even the Doves…even if they did deserve the success. It was like the band was still out there. Even if the records I was enjoying were years old, I was enjoying them anew.
The rawness of their first record Raise brought to the forefront some of their sound that appealed to my old school metal leanings. The pop polish of 99th Dream was a great progression from what I knew from Mezcal Head. Their catalog expanded by 300% and I was loving it. Mezcal Head would always be my definitive album from the band cause I spent about a decade longer with that record than any other, but the band had a whole new life and I loved all the “new” directions that the band took their amazing sound.
Then, about 4 years ago when I was playing around with MySpace, I came across a question on the Swervedriver page, seemingly from the band. They were thinking of touring again (holy shit!) and wanted to know what venues they should play. I wrote that they should play at Neumos, one of my favorite rock clubs in my newly adopted city. Low and behold, about 4 months later here they were, at Neumos playing a gig. I can’t say for sure I had anything to do with where they ended up here in Seattle, but I like to think I did. Again, the band had new life, beyond what I had ever expected. The “gift” of finding new music to enjoy was one thing, but being able to see them play live again was something else entirely. This brought the promise of new material.
The show itself was great. But now having seen them a second time in the same venue, I think that maybe my love of the band clouded my judgement a bit. It’s no doubt that the band has a lot going on and is in complete control of their art. The lead singer and guitarist Adam Franklin is clearly a genius. As the creative lead for the band he’s guided them through the complex but accessible soundscapes and interesting themes that have cut across the various records. The rest of the band is there in full effect as well and played the show with a quiet intensity that fit the room and their place in rock history. The band was very much into it, largely a crowd of older über fans like myself who were thrilled to see the comeback.
But, having heard them play the same place twice in 4 years, I have to wonder if something was awry. Either I have to admit that Neumos does not have great sound, or that the band just has too much sound for the little room. Everything I like about Swervedriver – the big sound, very little rest between constructions, the feedback, the in your face of it all – may not lend itself to a crisp sound in the room. I don’t need or want them to sound exactly like they do on the record, but you do want a crisp sound. Maybe I need to admit that one of my favorite places to see shows here has crappy sound. I’ll do some research on that. I can’t believe that it is any deficiency on the part of the band, cause they were clearly in control of what they were doing.
As convenient as digital downloads can be, that format caused me to miss out on a great record from the band – Ejector Seat Reservation – an album that the band made as a follow-up to Mezcal Head. The band had been on a major label when they handed in ESR, but were dropped from that label not long after they handed it in. The album is now hard to find. April ’95 when it was released was around the end of the “grunge” error that the band was probably pigeon holed into at the time. Some of the lack of the band’s success was probably due to the labels lack of marketing of the band and that album. The album was another new discovery for me from the band, I purchased a physical CD (yeah, I know) at this show and now have come to understand why there is so much lore surrounding the album. Many say it is their best. It’s clear that the band was doing something unique and had poured themselves into the record. They must have been crushed when their “baby” was dismissed by the label. I think that process had something to do with the bands lack of success. If the band had the distribution methods available today, they wouldn’t have had this label roadblock in their story. Maybe something else would have happened.
I can do no justice to who Swervedriver is or their place on the tracking board of great “shoe gazer” artists who I love, I have too much history with them to distill it down effectively. But suffice to say that I would gladly go see them play in the same place again, even if the sound was bad. Many of the bands of their ilk – Pulp, Ride, Blur, even Oasis – are infrequently making music like this or playing it live. It is a great way for me to relive some of my history and to enjoy a kind of music that I will always love.
P.S. – Yes, if you’re keeping score, I have given up on my trying to weave my own story into the story of Swervedriver. I was going to try to go with some sort of unappreciation, coming out of obscurity, putting trust in the hands of other, etc….just can’t pan out…but at least it got me writing…. =)