[6 February 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
“Been driving to take the pain away.” That line from one of Swervedriver’s best-known songs, “Son of Mustang Ford”, pretty much nails down America’s fascination with the automobile, and Swervedriver’s fascination with America. Well before Nirvana and grunge hit, the Oxford, England, band were in thrall to muscle cars, the desert, Sonic Youth, the Stooges, and Dinosaur Jr. In his liner notes to these timely re-issues, Swervedriver singer/guitarist Adam Franklin notes that Oxford, with its British Leyland auto factory, must have affected the band like Detroit affected the Stooges.
The songs on 1991’s Raise and 1993’s Mezcal Head, Swervedriver’s first two albums, are filled almost to the point of obsession with car-crash fetishism, twisted metal, hot pavement, gunplay, and dangerous women. Yet Swervedriver were early on labeled a “shoegazer” band. True, they were signed to shoegazer central, England’s Creation Records, after a member of shoegazer principals Ride passed a demo to Creation boss Alan McGee. They were also fond of barrages of guitar effects and stretched out, often melancholy arrangements, which put them in the sonic vicinity of the short-lived UK trend. But Swervedriver were so much more. Unlike the shoegazers, they really didn’t care if they got you to dance. They rocked. Hard. Unrepentantly. And for those who had forgotten, and the many more who never knew, here is the evidence. These two albums not only represent some of the best driving music you’ll ever experience, they are also two of the best rock albums of the ‘90s.
The self-produced Raise, like many debuts, is built on the few singles the band had already released. And what singles they are! “Son of Mustang Ford” comes on like a shotgun blast, all pile-driving rhythm, shards of guitar, and expressionistic lyrics. “Petroleum Spirit Daze”, indeed! “Rave Down” has nothing to do with the then-nascent dance music scene and everything to do with waking up hungover on a blistering hot day in a small town and realizing there’s absolutely nothing to do you haven’t done before. It also includes one of the all-time great rock lyrics, in the form of an “Ex-cop ‘round the block / Rockin’ chair, suckin’ beer / He blasts flies with his gun / Because swatting’s no fun”. It’s Raymond Carver set to music that rattles your soul. The pining yet optimistic “Sandblasted”, meanwhile, finds a melodic middle ground between heat and haze.
These three tracks alone make Raise essential, but several more are nearly as strong, and sustain the moody sense of stupor. “Sci-Flyer” introduces the album with a roar and a Kafka reference: “Just call me Bucket Rider, don’t have a penny to my name”. The epic “Deep Seat” is a crushing, claustrophobic window on a relationship that’s as twisted as the metal on that crashed Mustang Ford, building to a dive-bombing crescendo before flopping, exhausted, on the floor. “Lead Me Where You Dare…” is a perfectly wasted chance for everyone to catch their breath and balance their adrenaline. Only a couple of placeholder tracks and an impossibly murky mix keep Raise from being a classic, though the meaty remastering here attempts to right the latter.
Mezcal Head has no such trouble. Recorded by core members Franklin and guitarist Jimmy Hartridge along with new drummer Jez Hindmarsh after the band’s original rhythm section had quit, it’s about as shoegazer as one-time A&M labelmates Soundgarden. As titles like “Duel” and “Girl on a Motorbike” suggest, the band had now added highway film noir to their list of core interests. This was an appropriate development, as the sound of Mezcal Head is likewise expanded and opened up compared to that of Raise, resulting in a widescreen, Technicolor fever dream of a road trip. Credit producer and “fourth member” Alan Moulder, better known for bestowing his sharp, streamlined sheen on Curve, Smashing Pumpkins, and Nine Inch Nails. Moulder’s crisp production and mix still sounds fresh, and remastering only makes the songs more powerful than ever. While Mezcal Head is more spacious and melodic than its predecessor, it’s simultaneously louder, fiercer, and more powerful. First track “For Seeking Heat” encapsulates the album nicely, opening with a thunderous roar, working its way into a lather, and then floating away on an airy, almost pretty coda.
“Duel” takes a similar approach, only with a more complex arrangement and more dynamics. Once again, raw power and striking beauty intermingle, and the poignancy of the fade-out catches you by surprise. “Blowin’ Cool” sounds just like its title, awash in surf, guitars, and a “cool mornin’”. But there’s more variety, too, from the Nick Cave-meets-Johnny Cash boogie of “Last Train to Satansville”, to the Hendrix-inspired mojo of “A Change Is Gonna Come”, to the self-contained (road) trip “Girl on a Motorbike”. Hindmarsh plays like Keith Moon with a fine arts degree, the guitars slash, burn, and roar but never overdo it, and Franklin’s lyrics evince a storyteller’s knack for clever detail. It all boils down to the brilliant “Duress”, an eight-minute dub-plate of crushed expectations and crushing guitars, featuring some monstrous wah-wah work.
As if all this isn’t enough, this version of Mezcal Head, in keeping with the original American issue, tacks on the classic “Never Lose That Feeling/Never Learn”. The last recording made by the original Raise lineup and the band’s first with Moulder, it’s one of the most cathartic, brilliant singles of the ‘90s followed by an extended space-rock coda, thundering bass runs and distortion effects included.
These nicely-packaged reissues also include a handful of b-sides and outtakes each. While there are no further revelations, longtime fan favorites like “Kill the Superheroes”, “The Hitcher”, and “Cars Converge on Paris” are collected here, and at the very least show the band’s intensity and brilliance extended beyond the albums proper.
One only hopes that the band’s true piece d’resistance, 1995’s Ejector Seat Reservation, will eventually see American reissue, too. In the meantime, Raise and Mezcal Head are all the proof that’s necessary that the band’s recent reformation was much-warranted. Get out on the road, put these albums on, and grip the steering wheel for dear life.