Richard Swift's duo debuts, The Novelist and Walking Without Effort, are fraternal twins wrestling with same Big Questions in opposite ways - one toiling in a cinderblock basement slugging typewriter coffee; one lost on the Pacific Coast Highway, looking again and again for something in a sunset that just ain't there. One's wheezing through a crusty gramophone in some Artie Shaw air-conditioned nightmare; one's gliding on the soft tape of an 8-Track, fat tears welling up behind those outlandish 70s sunglasses. Taken together, they speak to Swift's wild, preternatural shapeshifting ability, an auteur's understanding of mood and place. Yet, you always know you're seeing these new places through Swift's translucent, wolven eyes. These two recordings are his 8Â½, both the portal and the Rosetta Stone to Swift's singular musical universe and language.
Richard Swift believed in and sought real beauty. And so, even at its most caustic and sardonic, his masterpiece swan song The Hex is beautiful. Conceived in pieces over the last several years and completed just the month before his passing, The Hex is the grand statement Swift acolytes have been a-wishin-and-a-hopin' for all these years. After a career of sticking some of his finest songs on EPs and 45s, here are all his powers coalescing into a single, long-player statement. At its core, The Hex is an aching call out into the void for Swift's mother ("Wendy") and his sister ("Sister Song") whom he lost in back-to-back years. You hear a man at his lowest and spiritually on his heels. The pain fueling Swift's cries of "She's never comin' back" on the absolutely gutting standout "Nancy" is some sort of dark catharsis for anyone who's ever lost a loved one to the cold abstraction of Death. Over a slow, Wall of Sound kick and a warbling synth, Swift's cries climb higher-n-higher-n-higher into what may be his most devastating vocal performance on record. A cry of pain so real and so raw Swift had to treat the performance with just a little studio effect, without which the recorded grieving might be too much to bear. The Hex is presented here as "The Hex For Family and Friends." An obsessive fan of Wall of Sound doo-wop, early Funkadelic, Bo Diddley, Beefheart and Link Wray, Swift gives them all a moment with the flashlight around The Hex campfire, one moment to make a strange shadow-cast face for us, his family and friends.
Over the weekend of August 21-22, 2010, not long after Damien Jurado and Richard Swift first collaborated to produce Damien's 2010 record, Saint Bartlett, the pair hunkered down with a 4-track recorder and one Coles 4038 ribbon microphone to record a collection of cover songs that run the gamut from John Denver to Chubby Checker to Kraftwerk.
The timing was perfect. On Other People's Songs Vol 1, we can see the scaffolding of what would become a creative turning point for the pair - later seen with the release of Damien Jurado's Maraqopa, the first record in his Maraqopa trilogy - less than 2 years later. The opening drum hits of "Be Not So Fearful", the falsetto vocals of "Sweetness", and the Spaghetti-Western swing of "Radioactivity" are, by now, hallmarks of the Jurado/Swift sound, but Other People's Songs Vol 1 is a transitional fossil, a marking of the pair's collaborative evolution.
About a year ago, Richard Swift horrifically fractured his left ring finger. For a moment his nimble guitar and piano work flashed before his eyes. Doctors were saying things like "movement and feeling could eventually return," etc, etc. Certainly, not even a little blip on the sadness radar of humanity, but a massive bummer for a fellow who has carved out a niche as one of independent music's sought after session players and producers — and especially in relation to the astounding Richard Swift solo output we all know and love.
So, it's with a great, collective sigh of relief that he's back to churning out new material like "Whitman." It's chugging, chiming and triumphant, featuring Swift's always-endearing falsetto and casual call-and-response lyricism. "I've got my own Whitman...Farewell, farewell/I hope it did you good/To say the things/My father never could," Swift pines. The song is a cryptic salute to Walt Whitman, whose American lineage of primal, urgent art can be traced to include Kerouac and Dylan, Bo Diddley and Beefheart — right on through to modern outsider-pop wunderkinds like Swift. And according to Swift, "Whitman" is a nice taste of what we can expect from his next longform recording.
The same can be said for the remainder of the Walt Wolfman EP. Conceived in the same spirit that gave us 2008's cult favorite Ground Trouble Jaw EP, these blown-out, basement R&B rippers are not for the faint of heart. They require movement and sweat, dancing with a cocktail glass in your grip until your shoes are soaked in booze. Highlight of the set, "MG 333," is a raw and ghostly trance, a blast of kinetic energy and jazz cigarette smoke. Meanwhile, the neu-vintage jive of "Drakula (Hey Man)" and "Zombie Boogie" pack a timelessness that transcends their seasonal titles. And yeah, that's Swift himself on rapid-fire drums across the whole damn set. Shit, he might have been fine without that measly finger after all.
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The Atlantic Ocean is the fourth release from American singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Richard Swift. Celebrated for his lo-fi, experimental mÃ©langes saluting genres from Doo-Wop to lush American Pop, Swift adds jaunty synthesizers and Motown soul to make Ocean his most danceable record to date. After touring the US with Cold War Kids, Wilco and Stereolab, Swift started recording The Atlantic Ocean in Wilco's Chicago loft on a vintage analog tape machine sold to him by Wilco's frontman Jeff Tweedy. With a methodical approach and help from engineer Chris Colbert (The Walkmen) and mulit-instrumentalist Casey Foubert (Sufjan Stevens, Crystal Skulls), Swift's vintage mixtures on Ocean are seamless and bright. A collaboration with producer Mark Ronson on track "Ballad of Old What's His Name" features the talents of Ryan Adams, Mark Ronson, Sean Lennon and Pat Sansone of Wilco, a strange pairing of musicians, producing beautiful results.
The Atlantic Ocean continues Swift's tradition of defying musical categorization while showcasing his signature wry, whimsical style. Title-track "The Atlantic Ocean" opens the album with bouncy synth-powered pop while orchestra swells blend with electric guitar solos on "The First Time." Ragtime horns parade on "Bat Coma Motown" and single "Lady Luck" brings the album to a close with Swift's signature croon hearkening serious 60s soul. With a balanced mix of dry, minimal rock and roll, and futuristic synthesizer stabs, Swift himself refers to the album's sound as "Prince sitting in on John Lennon's Plastic Ono sessions".
The double-EP Richard Swift as Onasis is as creatively fortifying as it is unhinged and unpolished, a primal slab thrown into the fire for dancing and merriment during the chilly months while we await Richard Swift's second full-length. Once upon a time, the idea of a record was to capture a performance, to grab the those undulating wavelengths from the air and stick them to this thing that went round and round, so later on that performance could be heard and felt and experienced again. Before the beloved studio trickery of our beloved Beatles or Beach Boys, cats gathered around a couple microphones, plugged into that thing that went round and round, and let at it. This is hardly a forgotten art, but its purveyors are languishing in the onslaught of computer perfected 1’s and 0’s coming from our speakers, where honesty and blemish and truth are subjected to a recording filter called Sheen that actually has setting to choose how much Soul is removed from the music. So it’s no surprise Swift, a long-in-the-tooth impresario of all not-a-computer, would jangle and stomp out this tangent of jams that tape-echo a generation of pioneers who believed Rock and Roll and the Blues a celestial calling and not a lifestyle choice. Now most listeners won’t think about how Swift did this on a cheap four-track; they won’t immediately see his nods to Link Wray and Howlin’ Wolf; it doesn’t matter. The songs stand up. The songs get in your belly and wiggle your hips and stomp your foot and bob your head. Some of them float around like organ music that slipped out the church backdoor and headed to that bar with vinyl booths and a Little Richard photo over the burbling Wurlitzer of 45’s. They got vibe and atmosphere. They act like great harmony, making whatever they’re accompanying richer and wider and thicker.
This is the debut single from Richard Swift's new full-length Dressed Up For the Letdown for which Mojo had the following to say: "FOUR STARS. It's not stringently retro, more a Tin Pan Alley of the Imagination." The A-side is pure Swift — a piano-driven pop tune sung with the moxie of a wizened songsmith. "So come on, love, nobody wants to see you cry," he sings. "All of your heartbreak has been sung." It's three minutes of wonder that takes you back thirty-five years to a classic era of smart L.A. pop music. Which makes the B-side so interesting, as it's Swift's sublime take on Prince's "Paisley Park" that jumps ahead a generation to cover the Purple One's late-80s under-appreciated gem. The second offering on the two-tune B-side is an ethereal tumbleweed of a number called "Cowboy Song #6". A Swift-penned out-take from the Dressed Up sessions, "Cowboy Song #6" finds Swift strumming his guitar, waiting for his train to come in, in whatever fashion it may take.
Richard Swift has confidently composed yet another original masterpiece; employing an archaic attitude of tempered restraint on a fresh collection of ten songs, without appearing shamelessly retro or kitschy. Playing a vast majority of the instruments on "Dressed Up" himself, by virtue Swift has created something that is characteristically his. And considering his rough-around-the-edges exterior, one could rightly assume that Swift desires the listener to accept him as an ordinary honest man with some honest songs -- unmasked blemishes and all. Yet when one engages with Swift on this narrow-road-less-traveled, one immediately ignores the subtle imperfections shadowed by the all-consuming white light of well-crafted pop songs in an analog heaven. In effect he's saying, "Just listen to my songs... the riffraff in the background is inconsequential." Sure Swift... whatever you say.