Pop quiz: What’s the scariest word in rock and roll? It’s “supergroup”, and rightfully so. For the few that work (Electronic, New Pornographers), there are scores who fail miserably (three letters: GTR). But Swag, comprised of members of Cheap Trick, Wilco, Sixpence None the Richer and the Mavericks, plus Not Lame artist Doug Powell, is that rare beast, a genre-hopping hit machine with amazing chemistry and tunes to spare. Catch-All, the band’s first full-length platter, plays like a jukebox from a pool hall somewhere in Rockford back in 1977. The British are coming, and the Americans are ready for them. Catch-All is a blow-by-blow account of the battle.
The purpose of the band was a power pop outlet for Mavericks Robert Reynolds and Jerry Dale McFadden, which is evident from the “Doodle lee doo doo, dwee diddle doo doo” nonsensical opening to leadoff track “Lone”. Reynolds and McFadden have done their homework: 12-string guitars that ring like cathedral bells and three-part harmonies that boy bands would give their virginity for. And we’re only on track one. “I’ll Get By” is Jellyfish after listening to 12 hours of Big Star, thanks to Powell’s uncanny vocal similarity to Andy Sturmer. “Please Don’t Tell” is one in a series of hybrid songs, this one equal parts Zombies and Kinks.
This album isn’t stuck in the ‘60s, however. At least one foot is firmly entrenched in the ‘70s, which is most apparent on “Eight”. The song is like an imaginary B-side to “Oliver’s Army” (Elvis Costello), with a baritone guitar solo and vaudeville piano fills in the break. “Louise” is Hybrid Song #2: It starts off as another Byrds tribute, until the spirit of Wonder Stuff takes over at the end in the form of a violin and fiddle section. The wildest mix of artists, though, is “Ride”, an unholy alliance between Kiss and Cheap Trick (who gets name checked in the lyrics, natch). McFadden does an admirable Gene Simmons impression, though his Sammy BoDean-ish tenor just can’t close the deal. A for effort, though.
Notice I haven’t said much about the lyrics. There is a reason for that. It’s not that the lyrics are truly awful in an “Ironic” kind of way. They are simply not the focal point for the songs. Hooks first, words later seemed to be the order of the day. And when they’re serving up hooks of this size, it matters little that said hooks are covered with just a smattering of words worth remembering. In the end, you’re still getting reeled in and cooked for dinner. Take “Lone”, for example. The song is about a waitress (perhaps the sister of the barmaid in “Louise”) whose biggest moment in her day is when the napkin of one of her customers falls to the ground. But what will you walk away singing? Yep, “Doodle lee doo doo, dwee diddle doo doo.” Now, those are words worth remembering.
The ultimate British Invasion moment occurs on “Different Girl”, which is like the Beach Boys (yes, I know they’re not British, but . . . Oh, quiet, you) covering “Here There and Everywhere”. It’s holds its own with Sir McCartney’s best love songs, both the silly and not so silly ones. “She’s Deceiving” is the Americans’ reply, adding lots more punch to the mix. There’s an interesting exchange going on here, the give and take between the Brits and the Yanks. “Thanks for the melodies, Simon.” “Yeah, thanks for the great guitar sounds, Bubba.”
Swag’s biggest weakness is that it’s just a part time gig for all concerned, meaning the follow-up will pop up much later than it should. But credit should go where it’s due; Swag didn’t just make a good record, they made the supergroup idea respectable again. Finally, a supergroup where the whole is far more than the sum of its parts. What a novel concept that is.
// Notes from the Road
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