In a 2008 PopMatters interview, Adam Franklin expressed his apprehensions about a new album from a reunited Swervedriver. Namely, Franklin wasn’t sure his current singer/songwriter-type writing style would fit with Swervedriver. Based on “Surge”, the aptly named opener to his second solo album, Spent Bullets, Franklin’s concerns seem unfounded. “Surge”, a big, beautiful and shimmering piece of rock ‘n’ roll, has a big, major-key, divebombing chorus. You know, the kind Swervedriver was famous for. Just add Jez’s forceful, ornate drumming, and “Surge” would be a highlight of any Swervedriver album on which it appeared.
But based on Spent Bullets’ remaining nine tracks, Franklin had a point. The album settles into woozy, hazy and moody mode and remains there. Never mind that he’s augmented by two members of his touring band. The image these songs evoke is Franklin, sitting in a dark bedroom/hotel room/dressing room, hunched over his guitar and a few effects pedals on the floor, just feelin’ it. In the moment, this kind of slow-motion immersion probably seemed revelatory to Franklin, speaking the truth and saying what’s on everyone’s mind. Or at the very least, it must have felt like he was composing the coolest songs ever. Translating those feelings to the morning after when other people listen to these songs in their bedrooms or cars can be tricky.
For the most part, Franklin pulls it off. Even with Swervedriver, the borderline-petulant “cool, man” factor was always nearly as powerful as the music itself. Give these songs time and patience, and it gradually reveals melodies, hooks and genuine feelings. Here, Franklin doesn’t navel-gaze until he’s faint in the head. He continues his exploration of singer/songwriter and psychedelic folk music, too. “Teardrops Keep Fallin’ Out My Head”, as elegantly wasted as its title suggests, works its way with a pleasantly languid melody and enough guitar shimmers to qualify for Swervedriver’s last album, 99th Dream. “Bolts of Melody” pulls the ol’ would-be-title-track-for-the-previous-album switcheroo, waltzing its way into near-nirvana with its layered harmonies and Lou Reed-like tale of a girl named Melody who doesn’t wanna die alone. Yep, this is that third-self-titled-Velvet Underground-album sweet spot.
Franklin’s main accomplishment here is to stir blood and adrenaline with a minimum of speed or, often, volume. His laid back yet sincere croon of a voice proves perfect for this stuff, as it never calls much attention to itself but is magnetic just the same. “It Hurts to See You Go” is an anthem in slow motion, power chords and all. Instead of cranking up the bombast, though, Franklin has what sounds like a gamelan orchestra playing an uplifting little melody in the background. That’s what kind of album Spent Bullets is. By the time you get to the Steely Dan-type backing harmonies on the far-out Hendrix jam “Big Sur”, you shouldn’t be surprised.
Though it follows a similar sonic trajectory, Spent Bullets categorizes as a more concise, focused effort than 2007’s Bolts of Melody, for better and worse. Once the spell sets in, it’s not broken by any more rockers or misdirected progressive rock influences. The blissfully disorienting feeling peaks on the teetering, swaying and rain-soaked “Champs”. The downside is at that point you still have two more tracks to go, and your ability to hang with Franklin’s hazy mood dissipates. “Anyone can play guitar,” Radiohead once asserted correctly. But molding that guitar into a series of downtempo, smoked-out songs, one after another after another, is something else. It’s tough to do in a consistently engaging way, and Franklin comes pretty close.
Interestingly enough, Spent Bullets could have just as easily worked under the Toshack Highway banner, the now-retired name Franklin used for his more off-beat, leisurely paced projects. You have a right to be angry with Franklin for teasing with that opening burst of rock ‘n’ roll energy, and then proceeding to let all the steam bleed out. But it bleeds out eloquently, and with an extra shot of tempo and energy, it could’ve just as easily gone the other way. Don’t rule out that Swervedriver album just yet.
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