[25 October 2007]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Swervedriver, for whom Adam Franklin was singer/lyricist/guitarist, were one of the greatest rock’n'roll bands ever (that’s right, ever). Their first album, 1991’s Raise, is a near-classic with at least a couple of classic singles. Their second and third albums, Mezcal Head and Ejector Seat Reservation respectively, are bona fide classics. The latter has all the soul-splitting introspection, pre-millennial anxiety, and sonic brilliance of Radiohead’s OK Computer—only with a sense of humor and two years earlier. If you haven’t yet familiarized yourself with this band, do yourself a favor.
Yet, for such a great band, Swervedriver had horrible, horrible luck. In their native England, they were literally shoved aside by their label (Creation) to make way for Oasis and the wave of Britpop that followed. They were understandably yet unjustly grouped in with the “Shoegazer” scene of the early ‘90s, and were dismissed accordingly. They used guitar effects and had a knack for atmosphere when they wanted it, but first and foremost Swervedriver rocked. So they should have been perfect for America’s grunge craze, except they didn’t write songs about how miserable life was. They wrote songs with Hitchcock references, about trains to Hell, and two of the most vintage rock’n'roll subjects—women and cars, and the cars almost always crashed. You imagined just about every character in every Swervedriver song wearing dark sunglasses and leather.
But the only way Swervedriver could have had worse luck with record companies is if they’d never been signed at all. So, after their third label in four albums went bust after 1998’s 99th Dream, it was little surprise that Franklin and company packed it in. Over the past decade, Franklin has released a couple of eclectic records under his Toshack Highway collective, dabbling in soundtrack music, atmospheric romanticism, singer/songwriter moodiness, and more. Now comes his first “official” solo album.
Bolts of Melody has been promoted as a return to guitars’n'songs, and opener “Seize the Day” is the calling card. Driving guitars, an exhilarating chorus, pounding drums worthy of eight-armed Swervedriver sticksman Jez, all coming in at under three minutes—it’s an adrenaline rush Swervedriver fans haven’t heard in at least a decade, a top down jolt of adrenaline. Initially, then, it’s a disappointment that most of the rest of Bolts of Melody consists of slowies. But wait—give it some time and you’ll realize that most of them are great Swervedriver songs with the sheetmetal removed. “Sundown” and “Canvey Island Baby” have familiarly evocative chord structures and plenty of melody, only they’ve been slowed down to match Franklin’s world-weary yet surprisingly engaging croon. The guitar line on the refrain of “Song of Solomon” curls in on itself in a sinister manner that will be familiar to Swervedriver fans.
Bolts of Melody makes complete sense as an effective waypoint between the more mellowish 99th Dream and often-whimsical Toshack Highway. Franklin hasn’t thrown out any of his effects pedals, either, still favoring the whirring, whooshing, gurgling, wah-wah-assisted space-outs that marked those two albums. “Morning Rain”, in particular, is a masterpiece of sonic mood and manipulation. As the track ambles along lazily, acoustic strumming keeping the pace, Franklin works the pedals and whammy bar like a DJ working the decks, employing some especially evocative slide effects. The lyrics are typically impressionistic, a dejected Franklin walking “on dripping country lanes / Throwing stones at the fast lane”. “Said you’d find a way / Said we’d find a way”, he continues, as the music reaches a surging crescendo that mirrors his frustration. “Shining Somewhere” provides another rock-out moment, only slightly less effective than “Seize the Day”.
Though it will sound comfortingly familiar to fans, the album feels like more than a rehash or concession, as Franklin explores some new sonic routes on several tracks. Most effective is “Birdsong”, a beautiful, lilting folk ballad that’s so good it’s also presented in a rollicking blues version. “Syd’s Eyes”, a tribute to the late Barrett, replicates the shimmering early Pink Floyd sound, complete with trembling organ. While Franklin is no stranger to psychedelia, the song is so close to mimicry it’s almost a novelty. “Ramonesland” is much more effective; sounding nothing like the band it namechecks, it sends the album off with slow-motion, stoned-out, Velvet Underground-style melancholy.
Franklin’s singing, songwriting, and playing (he handles everything but bass) sound more confident here than anything he’s done since his Swervedriver days. And if Bolts of Melody leaves the impression that his true home was with that band, it suggests that he is indeed finding his own way.