Smart, edgy pop
The Swimmers, out of Philadelphia, make pop music that is, on its surface, easy and ear-friendly. Raggedy guitars and raucous drums enliven harder-rocking songs, like “It’s Time They Knew” and “St. Cecilia”. But mostly the rough edges are carefully hemmed up and sweetened with vocal harmonies, handclaps, piano runs and infectious melodies. “Pocketful of Gold” is one of the album’s best songs, frontman Steve Yutzy-Burkey’s voice slowed to a Beulah-ish drawl over chiming keyboards. The song simmers, guitars kept to a pulse, drums subtle and backgrounded, and then it explodes into a triumphant chorus.
Fighting Trees is probably not a concept album, but it has running themes and central ideas. For instance, during the course of this impressive debut, you get three distinct takes on going home. The first, paced by jaunty, nostalgic keyboard chords and pounding drums, is “Heaven,” a daydreamy tribute to the haunts of youth. “Heaven / is the town / where we grew up / all our friends are there,” sings Steve Yutzy-Burkey, in a gently soaring pop chorus. And yet even at this stage, nostalgia is creeping in, as the author notices changes in the local scen:, friends gone to college, bands that have given up the ghost, streets that have become just a bit less familiar. You can go home again, but it won’t be what you remember, the song seems to say.
Later on, there’s a swirling, fairly stunning track that’s actually titled “Home”, where the songwriter recalls lying in bed at age five. Then it morphs somehow into a love song about a girl who comes sporadically, you guessed it, home. “Every time I settle down / she comes blowing into town,” he sings. It’s a jittery chorus, conveying helpless optimism as well as doubt. Still further on, in the lovely title track, Yutzy-Burkey returns to this idea in a much more transcendental way, with harp flourishes lighting the corners and cello lending depth and melancholy. A spiritual connection to home remains. It is a land where “fathers fathers laid with dreams still in their heads.”
The image of home is interesting. Through its single lens, Yutzy-Burkey has focused on three of the great themes of pop music: lost youth, thwarted love and the fear of death. This is serious stuff, yet couched in such likeable, easily absorbed musical settings that you hardly notice the angst. And in a way, isn’t that the secret of great power pop? You’re humming along to philosophy’s most serious questions…but with a big smile on your face.
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// Notes from the Road
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