Like an old shoebox recently salvaged from your eccentric Great Aunt’s attic, Richard Swift as Onassis is a mostly random collection of oddities. Very much the anti-concept (double) album, it’s a batch of tracks that undermines expectations at every turn, with tight-lipped jams like “Knee-High Boogie Blues” and “Vandervelde Blues” scrapping like junkyard dogs alongside tape-loop tidbits and some off-hand dub.
Still, the lack of singing on this set is disappointing. Far from fielding interestingly arranged stand-alone instrumentals, many of the songs on Onassis sound as though Swift simply forgot to add vocal tracks. It’s not that he’s incapable of writing great, wordless rock on occasion (see the aforementioned), but there’s a whole lot of filler here too. While there’s definitely an air of curiosity about interludes like “Opt I” (and “Opt II” and “Opt III” for that matter), this curiosity inevitably warps into frustration once you figure out that this is an entire two-cd set of interludes.
With slight exception, this really isn’t much of an exaggeration. For every honest-to-goodness mover (“Sign Language,” “Du(m)b I,” “Phone Coffins”) there’s probably three scuzzy throwaways. The best track is the stormy “The German (Something Came Up)”, in which a greasy Swift growls “She couldn’t meet me ‘cos somethin’ came up,” with all the injured insolence of a 17-year-old. At just 1:35, it’s garage rock gold, reveling in its own crudeness every stomping step of the way.
It’s when Swift expresses this kind of crudeness vocally that he reveals his true talent as a performer. Delivery is a crucial component in bare-bones rock and he can definitely talk the talk with the best of them. Take for instance the ironic “Sign Language”, in which he moans with unwarranted fervor, “Oooohhh, the twenty-seventh of Septembahh!” What’s it mean? Who knows. Does it matter? Of course not.
On “JLH”, a primal screamer that’s apparently devoted to summoning the ghost of John Lee Hooker, he yowls and yelps that gentleman’s name with the kind of twisted intensity that’d do a young John Lennon proud. Likewise with the snarling “Whistle at the Bottom of a Shoe”.
It’s a pity that tunes like these tend to get sucked into the mire of fitful jams that surround them, because there are some truly brilliant sparks of rock ‘n’ roll candor here and there that don’t really get the pride of place they deserve. If Swift had seen fit to cut back on some of the sprawl and done a bit more singing now and then, this might not have been the case, but it is.
Overall, Richard Swift as Onassis is an indulgence. There’s no doubt it’ll spawn a couple of live fan favorites in tracks like “The German (Something Came Up)” and “Sign Language”, but it’s unlikely to be called essential listening by anyone but the most ardent fans. What’s redeeming about this patchy collection, however, is the spirit of Swift’s endeavor, and while its substance is mostly tangential, it would be unfair to deem it a complete misstep artistically.