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Keep the Car Running: Swervedriver and the Sound of Speed

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Thursday, Mar 22, 2012
Cro-Magnon mating music, Martian childcare, hellbound murderers, and the serene pleasure of speed -- sounds like Swervedriver.

I’ve been a competitive runner for over 20 years. During that span of time, I’ve found running to be intensely thrilling, incredibly frustrating, wholly fulfilling, and painfully heartbreaking—sometimes all at once. For me, competitive running has probably taught me more about life—its peaks and valleys, its pleasures and pains—than anything else in my life.


Right now, the spring of 2012, I’m coming out of a particularly disheartening winter. After running quite well in last October’s Army 10 Miler, I suffered three different injuries in my right foot. Given that my right leg is a bit more bowed then my left, these injuries have become chronic over time. They’re completely unpredictable and are often unrelated to any specific workout or training regimen. Nevertheless, whenever I do suffer from them (posterior tibial problems are the absolute bane of my existence), I end up sidelined for weeks, requiring all manner of intense body work—ice massages, trigger point therapy, myofascial release sessions—to get back in gear. In the meantime, I miss races, my hopes for new PRs slippin’ through like sand.


This is the mindset that I will be bringing to Swervedriver’s upcoming show at Washington, D.C.‘s Rock & Roll Hotel on March 30—just two short days before the Credit Union Cherry Blossom 10 Miler, a race that I will no longer be able to race. Even though I’m not entirely pleased that, yet again, I won’t be able to blast around Hains Point, I actually can’t think of a more fitting physiological space to inhabit while attending what is sure to be a blistering concert.
  
Swervedriver first reunited in 2008, playing a fairly extensive set of shows and eventually sparking reissued and (mostly) expanded releases of their first three records: Raise (1991), Mezcal Head (1993), and Ejector Seat Reservation (1995). (That 1997/8’s criminally underappreciated 99th Dream hasn’t yet been revamped is an oversight of the highest order.)  When the band played D.C.‘s 9:30 Club in June 2008, drummer Jez graciously acknowledged the attendees, happily proclaiming that the band was pleased to be playing again, even if the crowds were smaller.


This time out, the band seems to be playing even smaller venues than they did just four short years ago. Though the Rock & Roll Hotel, to cite just one example, is a great, intimate concert space—again, the show will likely melt faces—it’s hard not to lament the passing of time. According to the band’s website, they are at work on new music. Still, I can’t help but fear that the sounds and the scenes of this particular tour—these particular times—might reveal the band to be a bit weather-beaten, a little too sandblasted, and potentially less shimmery as the inevitable dents and scratches of middle age start to reveal themselves.


In the early 1990s, Swervedriver were unmatchable in their raw power. While almost effortlessly clearing the typical band hurdles—loss of a drummer, record label indifference, general public indifference, etc.—the band released a frighteningly large amount of awe-inspiring music, beginning with 1990’s Sun of a Mustang Ford EP and stretching virtually uninterrupted through their dissolution in 1998. During that era, the group’s stride was forceful but smooth, finding them zigzagging between the ragged edges of some kind of Cro-Magnon mating music and pristine pop.


And then, because they were arguably the most solid band ever on Creation Records, they casually dropped gorgeous, heartbreaking songs like “The Hitcher”—tunes that conjure not only the serene pleasure of unimpeded motion but also the frustrated longing that can accompany unwanted stasis. Adam Franklin’s marooned narrator needs to hitch because he can’t move on his own, and, therefore, his love is always out of reach. But he knows that if he could just latch onto something—anything—he might just make it out. “The Hitcher” is Bruce Springsteen strapped to a V12 that is strapped to a V12.




For all of those reasons, Swervedriver have been inextricably linked to car culture. As accurate as this link might be, it remains a bit too narrow to capture the thematic reach of the band’s music. Yes, Swervedriver wrote a lot of songs about cars, and yes, their name clearly foregrounds the action of driving. Nevertheless, by consistently adhering Swervedriver’s work to the chassis of a souped-up hot rod, music writers have breezed right past the essence of what the band represents: space travel. Not necessarily literal travel through outer space, mind you (though the band did write about that, too). Rather, Swervedriver paint in even broader strokes than that, creating a sonic backdrop against which we can feel our bodies—whatever shape and size they might be, however beaten up and broken down they are—moving every-which-way through space. Swervedriver call to mind planes over the skyline, girls on motorbikes, vehicles piled up on each other, stranded travelers, wayward good ship sailors, cars converging on Paris, (literally) Goofy theme park abductions, train rides to hell, the flight of Superman, the door-to-door meanderings of Evangelical salespeople, possible mermaids rising up from the sea, and—above all else—the terrifyingly ecstatic free fall that is life:




It’s also worth noting that they wrote a song that seems to be about the difficulties of Martian childcare.


Swervedriver’s work is, in essence, the sound of motion—the sound of speed. This emphasis on movement is ultimately what severs the thin ties that have historically linked Swervedriver to their peers in The Scene that Celebrated Itself. Despite sharing some aesthetic affectations with bands like Slowdive, Ride, and My Bloody Valentine—namely a penchant for weaving together endless sheets of guitar noise—Swervedriver were not entirely concerned with insulating their audiences with densely fuzzed-out racket. Instead, they worked to tear through that racket, propelling their listeners outward to open spaces that were, in many ways, liberating.


Take “The Hitcher” as just one example. As each verse comes to a close, a pained guitar scream moves to the forefront of the song, embodying the desperation of the narrator. However, as the song blazes forward, that scream relaxes, leaving breathing room for Jez’s hi-hat work to continue propelling the track. Though the scream motif repeats itself several times in “The Hitcher”, it eventually unravels into a series of gliding guitar harmonies that are just a stone’s throw away from pedal steel and the open landscape over which so much country music has roamed.


Similar moments abound in the remainder of Swervedriver’s catalog. “Sandblasted” repeatedly blows itself apart, building toward pseudo-choruses that really just contain howling guitar echoes that sweep across the backbeat. The same can be said of Mezcal Head‘s “Blowin’ Cool”, which eradicates the white heat of its claustrophobic verses with cool surf twangy passages that suggest the possibility of change—the possibility of getting off the unnamed summer town’s endless merry-go-round.


Heck, even one of their more cluttered, chaotic tracks, “99th Dream”, foregrounds the “endless possibilities” of dreaming, flight, and, appropriately, “space travel, rock ‘n’ roll”. The song piles epic amounts of assorted effects on top of each other, creating an absolutely otherworldly soundscape that, at its core, fosters the optimism of love.




That particular optimism is not entirely saccharine, it should be said. Unlike eventual labelmates Oasis, Swervedriver were not content with merely paraphrasing the Beatles. Instead, Franklin and Co. legitimized the yearning we feel when we know we need love, but that love is just out of reach—the yearning we feel when we lie half in traction and just want to move to someplace, anyplace, other than where we are. That yearning is just as much a part of their music as are those moments when they work to assuage it. After all, we can’t experience release, freedom, speed without first feeling tension, claustrophobia, restraint. In many ways, life is nothing if not the ever-spinning dialectical motion between those poles. As frustrated as that dialectic might make us, and as desperate as we might become to break out of it, it’s really the struggle—the duel—that matters most.


When I hobble excitedly to the Rock & Roll Hotel in just a few short weeks, that existential duel is precisely what I’ll be feeling. And I hope I never lose that feeling, either.


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