[23 June 2013]
Swamp Dogg is a soul singer who released a series of albums in the 1970s which have been unjustly forgotten, but Alive Records is doing their best to remedy that. With reissues of the man’s first two LPs, the cockeyed genius of Swamp Dogg, aka Jerry Williams, will once again be available for all to enjoy.
Of the two, the better is 1970’s Total Destruction to Your Mind, which hits the ground running with the title track, an uncompromising burst of twangy guitar, gurgling organ, brass accents and Dogg’s expressive, off-the-wall vocals. Dogg reels off a string of inventive, high-octane tunes, including the easygoing swing of “Synthetic World”—which masks pointed lyrics about the emptiness of modern society—and the equally pointed but bouncy and danceable “Redneck”, with lyrics that manage to simultaneously contain humor and contempt.
Not all the tunes are infused with social commentary. “If I Die Tomorrow (I’ve Lived Tonight)” is an uptempo love song that is touching in the simplicity of the emotions expressed. “Everything You’ll Ever Need” is equally direct. Elsewhere, though, lyrical inventiveness is the order of the day. “Sal-A-Faster” brings the weirdness back with something approaching language poetry set to a twanging guitar and shuffling bed of percussion—think of a “Jabberwocky” that you could dance to—while “The World Beyond” is told from the point of someone living after a nuclear apocalypse. “Tell me again how it used to be/Did grass really grow, and was there a tree?” This is, needless to say, a far cry from the usual subject matter of most soul music.
The remastered sound is terrific, especially considering the age of the source material. There is some slight tinniness to the sound overall, but Dogg’s vocals are clear and nuanced, the bass pumps nicely and the guitars and brass are bright.
1971 follow up album Rat On! is slightly less successful, although it does supposedly boast one of the worst album covers of all time (according to whom? Beats me), so that’s something. But the delicious playfulness of Total Destruction‘s best songs is less evident here, although album opener “Do You Believe” is a toe-tapping way to get the proceedings rolling, and its nest of guitar, bass, brass and drums is irresistible. Social commentary hasn’t vanished entirely either, as witnessed by standout track “Remember, I Said Tomorrow”.
Other than that, the most notable tune here—in terms of lyrics anyway—is doubtless “God Bless America for What”, which isn’t quite as angry as it probably should be. A slow, reflective number that incorporates the chorus from the original “God Bless America”, the song is easy to mistake as being genuinely patriotic (as I learned when I slipped on the CD at an informal gathering of co-workers). Careful listening reveals the commentary here, but the tune’s overall sound, which is smooth and soulful, sands off many of the lyrical rough edges.
Rat On! isn’t a bad record, but compared to Total Destruction, the subject matter is far more conventional—no post-nuclear parables or language poetry or racist-baiting here. “Predicament #2”, “I Kissed Your Face”, “Creeping Away”, “That Ain’t My Wife” and “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye” are all concerned with the vagaries and complications of love. They’re good songs, sure, but in some ways they’re surprisingly typical.
That said, both albums are well worth a listen, especially for fans of classic old-school soul. These records are like time capsules from an era when soul and R&B hadn’t fallen into the dull, glossy ruts they currently inhabit. Some notes waver, but the emotion is palpable. Swamp Dogg sings, and his band plays, as if these songs matter. At the time, they did, and—surprisingly, perhaps, but then again perhaps not—they still do.