The Swimming Pool Q’s: “The A&M Years 1984-1986”

swimmingpoolAmong the pantheon of 1980’s “college rock” bands, only a few – R.E.M. being the most prominent – managed to transcend their cult following and attain mass popularity. Others, despite having releases on major labels, were destined for obscurity.  Either they were too quirky, didn’t have the support of their record label or the radio, or just had bad luck.  Atlanta’s The Swimming Pool Q’s had all these problems.

Thanks to the online fundraising site Kickstarter, however, the band managed to raise the money to buy back the master tapes for 1984’s self-titled release and 1986’s “Blue Tomorrow” to reissue them this year. In fact, they raised more than enough to reissue the albums, and with their extra funds were able to add a bonus disc of rarities and a DVD of live performances to the re-release of these two long-lost albums.

The Swimming Pool Q’s were founded in 1978 by Jeff Calder, a journalist and onetime creative writing student at the University of Florida.  From the beginning, they were a New South band in an Old South world. Rather than take their cue from blues or country music, they latched on to the thriving New Wave scene as well as the music of early 1970’s avant-garde Georgia rockers The Hampton Grease Band. The Q’s sounded quite unlike anyone else.

By the time of their 1981 debut, “The Deep End” on indie  label DB Records, Calder had established the group as a guitar-based, darkly humorous, literary band with a penchant for songs with titles like “Rat Bait” and “The A-Bomb Woke Me Up”.   Record labels at the time were trying to find the next B-52’s or R.E.M, so despite the relative oddness of The Q’s music they attracted the attention of numerous large companies.  Signing to A&M, the band made some drastic changes to their sound, most prominently bringing Anne Richmond Boston’s vocals to the forefront, featuring her as lead singer on the majority of the songs.  In addition, the songs became more streamlined, melodic and accessible. The playing of lead guitarist Bob Elsey, often in tandem with Jeff Calder, was chiming and dynamic.  Boston proved to be a powerful vocalist, and the self-titled album is filled with instantly memorable songs such as lead-off single “The Bells Ring” and “Silver Slippers”.

A busy touring schedule including the opening slot on Lou Reed’s “New Sensations” tour ensued, and critical reviews were generally laudatory. Yet, radio play for the album was sparse and no money was fronted for the Q’s to make a video.  Videos were everything for a band in these days of the young and influential MTV (when it was still a music channel), and without one the Q’s were mostly off the average record-buyer’s radar.

Despite the disappointing sales, the band went into the studio to record a follow up for A&M, this time with hot producer of the day Mike Howlett. Howlett had had big success with  radio staples such as Berlin and Tears for Fears.  As a result the album, “Blue Tomorrow”, was engineered for radio friendliness. Because of this big, slick sound, it comes across as the more dated of the two A&M releases.  The songs on “Blue Tomorrow” were not as consistently strong as the ones on its predecessor either, but tracks such as “Wreck Around” and “Pretty on the Inside” were as good as any the band would record.

While the self-titled release was a very cohesive, focused record, “Blue Tomorrow” was a mix of that album’s chiming jangle-pop and somewhat of a return to the weirdness of “The Deep End”, with songs such as the menacing Calder-sung “Corruption” and a re-recording of The Deep End’s “Big Fat Tractor” (“Your Baby is a big fat tractor / Three wheels of steam and rust / Your Baby is a big fat tractor / Ride him you must!”).  This unevenness didn’t help the record’s chances and the lack, once again, of a promo video or the release of the album on CD (until this year, both A&M albums had only been released on cassette and vinyl) hastened the album’s quick disappearance.

Within a few months, the band was dropped by A&M.  Boston left soon after and even though they put out an EP, were re-signed to a major label (Capitol) for 1989’s “World War Two Point Five”, and released a concept album of new songs called “The Royal Academy of Reality” (with Boston back in the fold) in 2003, their two A&M albums have remained the albums most treasured by their fans.

“The A&M Years 1984-1986” is available in a re-mastered albums-only version, as well as a deluxe version which includes a CD of outtakes and demos and a DVD of odds and ends, TV and live performances. Among the outtakes on the CD is an acoustic version of “The Bells Ring” and a blazing previously unreleased version of Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown”, which if it had been released as a single at the time might have garnered heavy radio airplay.  One of the odds (or is it one of the ends?) on the DVD sums up the fortunes of the Swimming Pool Q’s quite well. A video of the band in 1984 at a local record store chain shows the band asking the staff how their then-new record is selling. One clerk has never heard of the band and the other says “Didn’t you guys break up…?”

Thankfully, these overlooked albums of smart and snappy jangle-pop now have a second chance.

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Swan Dive: “Wintergreen”

swandivePartway to Christmas

Wintergreen, the 1997 album by Swan Dive – the duo of Bill DeMain and Molly Felder –  doesn’t come out and say it’s a Christmas album. The title, the inclusion of two Christmas songs, and the snowflakes artwork lean it heavily in that direction, though. Yet, the rest of the album has nothing to do with the holiday. In fact, it was recorded in the dog days of a Nashville summer. So what’s going on here?

I asked DeMain about Wintergreen, and apparently they had an EP of new material mostly done when record company marketing plans intervened. Their label decided they wanted to wait and release it to coincide with the upcoming Christmas season and promote it as a holiday album. Hence, two holiday-appropriate songs were recorded.

One is a somewhat goofy everybody-in-the-studio style sing-a-long of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”. The other, sung by Felder in a voice that could melt a snowman, is called “Santa, Can’t You Bring Me a Man”. Though it’s a Swan Dive composition, it sounds like a standard. You know, the kind of sultry, jazzy number that somebody like Dusty Springfield or Julie London would have crooned/purred back in the 50’s or 60’s.  The song is ripe for covering by someone like Diana Krall.

DeMain says the ‘Wintergreen’ title came from a jingle called “Wintergreen Kisses” that they did for J-Wave, Tokyo’s largest radio station, about the same time they were recording the EP tracks.

Though we’re calling it an EP, the two Christmas songs stretch the length closer to a full album. We’ve talked about those two tracks (after all it is that time of year), but what about the rest?

Wintergreen was the debut of “Groovy Tuesday”- one of Swan Dive’s best known songs, and it also contains well-chosen covers of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” and Burt Bacharach’s “In the Land of Make Believe”. These take their place nicely alongside the other Bossa and Bacharach inspired originals, “Words”, “I Know Myself Too Well” and “You Lose” (which contains the memorable lyrics “You could choke a dinosaur / As you tango ‘cross the floor / In your thousand dollar shoes”).

In a career that’s been marked by consistently strong songwriting, Swan Dive took a break after 2009’s Mayfair. Word is that we’ll see new music from the pair in 2014, as they go into the studio in January with producer Brad Jones (Josh Rouse, Matthew Sweet, Marshall Crenshaw).

River Crombie: “Time Beyond Me”

rivercOne wonders what an artist like Nick Drake would have done in this age of social media, Youtube, and Bandcamp.  Would he have found a wider audience for his music during his lifetime?  Would that virtual word of mouth, that immediate and direct feedback from listeners, have provided enough of that missing recognition he seemed to need?

The introspective songs of River Crombie have a lot in common with Drake’s, as well as the early work of Drake’s contemporary John Martyn, yet without the darkness that so often tugged at the corners of their compositions.  Crombie’s Time Beyond Me album is available to hear and purchase on Bandcamp.  He also uses YouTube as an outlet for his self-produced original songs as well as the occasional cover, including a remarkable rendition of Martyn’s late 60’s little-known “Ballad of an Elder Woman”.

Listening to River Crombie’s music and watching his videos, you’d be forgiven if you thought he stepped through a time portal from 1971.  The quiet intimacy and warm, assured guitar playing, however, allow the songs to transcend any connection to a specific musical period.  There’s an air of mystery about Crombie as if he may just be here a short while before moving on to yet another time.

Time Beyond Me is an uncluttered album, featuring just voice and guitar.   A thread of melancholy runs through, but it’s tinged with wonder and deep sense of contemplation. Themes of nature, the seasons, and travel frame these meditations on self-discovery.  The folk stylings and mysticism of early Bruce Cockburn  are akin, only Crombie’s lyrics are less concerned with the spiritual and more focused on the inner being and finding one’s place in the world.  In “Way of Freedom”, the singer awakens from a dream of a cloud over a hill and in the simplicity of this dream realizes that a certain freedom can be found by being open to life “without a fear to own.” He explores a similar thought in “Cold Winter Morning”: “Learning to be calm while life takes you further /Along with everything you know.”

Many of his lyrics can be read as poetry:
And now a folding circle
Draws me in with signs
The ageing of the new world
Is the dancing of time
-from “Folding Circle”

And

I can hear the wind of a cold winter morning
Covering the ground undisturbed by the night
A blanket lying softly painted in a moment
Waiting for the day to rise
-from “Cold Winter Morning”

In many ways we’re lucky to live in this time where a wide range of music to hear is easily accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.  For musicians, the Internet offers instant worldwide exposure for creativity and expression.  Would an artist like River Crombie  get signed to a record label if this was 1971?  Perhaps, but that doesn’t guarantee that his music would find all the appreciative ears it could.  The example of Nick Drake, signed to the large Island Records, shows this all too well.  As it is, through today’s technology, Crombie’s music is readily available 24 hours a day to discover. While he may be far from a household name, I’d argue that his connection with his listeners is more direct and perhaps more rewarding. It’s something that Nick Drake might have benefited from quite a bit.

My Bloody Valentine: “mbv”

my-bloody-valentineSwampy purple seismic gentle tsunamis of sound that reverberate and resonate on a molecular level. Hazy power tool washes of humming, purring, and grinding.  Ghostly dancing voices weaving and twisting through thick guitar ignition voltage meters. Rising above and falling fathoms below into warm warping murky melting depths. She whispers indecipherable in my ear. The hum and throb of woozy locomotive jet sludge.

Mercator Projection: “Space Bootleg”

mercatorLike a transmission from deep space, the slow-build intro to a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” emerges like a slowly expanding super nova. Then everything bursts into stars and we’re off on a glorious space rock odyssey. It’s the first track on Space Bootleg, a new all-too-under-the-radar live release by the Church. Okay, it’s technically not the Church – though it is 3/4 of the band (minus guitarist Peter Koppes) with the addition of musicians Jordan Brebach and William Bowden.

Going by the name Mercator Projection, this was a one-off show recorded on Dec. 23, 2006 at The Basement in Sydney, Australia. Having sat in the vaults since then, Church singer/songwriter/bassist Steve Kilbey has released a digital-only version of the majority of the show through his Bandcamp site.

If you like the Church when they get psychedelic and experimental (as I do), this collection of covers of Hawkwind, Pink Floyd, Neil Young and Deep Purple- along with a smattering of originals like a 16 minute version of “Magician Among the Spirits”- is for you. Piloting their instruments through strange kaleidoscopic galaxies of sound, it’s a magical performance.

With the recent release by the Church of the DVD/CD set Psychedelic Symphony (itself another live career highlight), it’s a shame Space Bootleg is getting a bit lost and overshadowed. It’s deserving of greater attention.  Put your headphones on, hop into your silver machine and set the controls for the heart of the sun.

Lee Ranaldo: “Last Night on Earth”

lastnight“The world is wild, wild and free / It means everything to you and everything to me / We can waste our time and let it pass us by / Or open up our eyes and let it in”

-from “Home Chds” [note: “Chds” is an abbreviation for “chords”]

Lee Ranaldo’s new album Last Night on Earth is a wild and free collection of songs that tap into a singer/songwriter mode, while also going in musically radical and experimental directions.  The album owes as much to Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell as it does to the long jams of The Grateful Dead, Neil Young with Crazy Horse, and Ranaldo’s old band Sonic Youth. The approach works on many levels – it’s extremely melodic, but also has a bite and an edge.

This is Ranaldo’s second outing since the demise of Sonic Youth, and the first with his touring band The Dust (which includes Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley).  It follows last year’s promising solo release, Between the Times and Tides, an album which marked his new-found ascendancy as a songwriter and bandleader out of the shadow of Thurston Moore.

Last Night on Earth is a guitar dominated album, of course, as Ranaldo is a well-known guitar improviser and composer, with a penchant for avant-garde, often dissonant pieces (check out this “hanging, spinning guitar” performance). The guitar explorations on Last Night on Earth send the listener soaring down city skyscraper corridors, through stands of tall trees, and always toward an eternal, pulsing, cosmic sonic light.  They’re both inner and outer space journeys, with the guitar always in the service of the song.

Unexpectedly, most of the songs – as is related in this East Village Radio interview – were initially composed on acoustic guitar.  They evolved into epic, majestic, and very electric band soundscapes only during recording sessions. Each track is filled out and colored in by the production and additional instrumentation.  In the end, though, the songs are solid constructs in their basic form, and the demo of “Home Chds” played during the East Village Radio show illustrates this.

“Lecce, Leaving” is the lead-off album track and was written while on tour near the Italian town of Lecce. I can’t help but think of some kind of coffee drink when I hear the word “Lecce” (too close to “latte” maybe?). When the psych-warble guitar kicks in at 0:28, it’s like a caffeine and sugar rush from some extraterrestrial espresso bar. “The marble floor is cold and I can smell the sea…” You can practically feel the ion charged ocean air.

Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Everything is related to what’s come before, in some way. The trick is for the artist to take the various influences (both conscious and unconscious), distill it through their own experiences, emotions and mode of expression and so create something new and fresh. For example, Ranaldo says “Ambulancer” was directly inspired by Neil Young’s “Ambulance Blues”. The songs don’t sound alike, though “Ambulancer” is one of the lyrically darker songs on the album, as is Young’s song.  It’s also the track most akin to Sonic Youth with its alternately tuned chords and siren singing guitar notes.

The unusual choice of harpsichord dominates “Late Descent No. 2”, a song inspired by The Grateful Dead’s “Mountains of the Moon” (also read Ranaldo’s review of the recently released live Dead set Sunshine Daydream).  Mingling with the harpsichord played by classical musician Elina Albach are light textures of acoustic and electric guitar, plus drums. It’s a gentle descent, back in time to a 1960’s incense and patchouli world and a dream-filled sleep.

“The Rising Tide” is the centerpiece of the album. According to Ranaldo it was almost the album title as well, but his previous album already had “tide” in its moniker.  The track starts off with meandering guitar strums, a psychedelic and mystical Indian mood, and soon settles into a smooth groove that sinks into you and flows over you like a warm zephyr. “The rising tide has kept us dry and high / This is the best time of my life / The time of the open skies / It’s leafy green and the sunlight is chasing your eye”, Ranaldo sings in a perfect combination of music and words.

Despite the apocalyptic album title, Last Night on Earth is a very invigorated and forward-looking album. It’s the sound of the world flying by in a kaleidoscopic blur of color, alive with dynamic possibility.

Album of the year? It just may be.

Kevin Hufnagel: “Ashland”

ashlandIt’s come to this. The best ukulele album of the year is by a death metal guitarist.

It’s melodic and moving and sounds similar to what I hear in my head and unsuccessfully attempt to do when I’m plinking around on the uke myself. I’ve never even been into death metal, doom metal, black metal or any of its other monikers. I’ve got nothing against the style of music, it just hasn’t  appealed to my musical tastes thus far.  Yet, the instrumental ukulele album Ashland by Gorguts and Dysrhythmia guitarist Kevin Hufnagel is some of the most inventive and thoughtful music you’re likely to come across. Granted, it sounds nothing like death metal, though there is some dissonance on pieces such as “Ancient Instinct” and “The Otherness.” These tracks, along with “Paths Crossed”, are some of the most interesting on the collection though, as Hufnagel has “prepared” the uke (much as one can “prepare” a piano). In other words, he’s used additional objects such as hair elastics and sewing needles in the strings to broaden and extend the sound of the instrument. Beyond these tracks, the balance of the album has more of a finger-picked, classical influenced sound.

There are a few semi-dark pieces (I mean, Hufnagel has played songs with Gorguts that have titles like “Enemies of Compassion” and “Reduced to Silence”, so you gotta expect a little darkness here), but nothing too sinister. In fact, on tracks such as “Dual Nature”, it’s more like moon and shadows, mysterious night breezes.  Elsewhere, we find light in songs such as “Janda”, which he composed for a friend’s wedding. “The Gift” is an airy, echo-ornamented track while “The Dust of Centuries” is evocative of Spanish desert landscapes.

There’s a lesson to be learned here: never let the stereotypes fool you. Ashland is an often gentle, and always accomplished, outing from a multi-faceted musician.

You can listen to and download the entire album on Kevin Hufnagels’ Bandcamp page.

He’s also on Youtube.