[9 October 2013]
The funny thing about Georgia’s “college rock” scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s is that location seemed to be the only unifying factor for all of the bands associated with it. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would willingly say that the demented surf-pop of the B-52’s fit alongside R.E.M.’s jangly mystique or Pylon’s slick, new wave attack. Then, there are the Swimming Pool Q’s, who nearly defy classification. A polished new wave band with a more bombastic rock sound and hints of country, the Q’s are easily one of the greatest lost bands of this era; at their best, they presented a darker alternative to the lighter, sometimes goofy pop of their contemporaries. It’s a pity, then, that some of their best work has languished in obscurity for so long, but you can’t ask for a more lavish second introduction than 1984-1986: The A&M Years. The collection—compiling both of the Swimming Pool Q’s major label efforts, a collection of demos, and a DVD—is the comprehensive collection that this band deserves.
If we can thank the founders of the Swimming Pool Q’s Kickstarter for anything, we must thank them for getting a re-release of the band’s self-titled major label debut. The Swimming Pool Q’s is, song for song, one of the best power-pop albums ever made. By taking the blueprint laid on their excellent debut The Deep End and expanding it, the band crafted an album with a considerable amount of ambition. Even if aspects of David Anderle’s slick, commercial production recall things that R.E.M. feared about hiring Don Gehman, the sheer strength of the songwriting elevates The Swimming Pool Q’s above being a history piece. In particular, Anne Richmond Boston’s vocal performances are consistently brilliant throughout; her haunting, booming voice elevate “Purple Rivers” and “Some New Highway” from being merely satisfying to true transcendence.
Boston’s vocals also carry the second album in this collection, the less consistent Blue Tomorrow. Even though there are several gems on the album (“Pretty On The Inside” and the title track are on par with anything on their self-titled album), some of Calder’s songs here are angular and offbeat to the extent that melody is left by the wayside, as if they’re an extension of the sinister strangeness in his lyrics. While the B-52s comparisons that Blue Tomorrow has earned the band are mostly exaggerated (“She’s Lookin’ Real Good (When She’s Lookin’)” is as close as the band gets to imitating any of their contemporaries), it’s hard to see Blue Tomorrow as anything other than mildly disappointing, even now that decades have passed since its original release.
Aside from the two albums, The A&M Years follows the standard re-issue path. A collection of rarities titled The Pow Wow Hour is, like most rarities collections, fairly uneven; many of the unreleased songs are charming but not up to the standards of the band’s officially released work. However, the demos here, particularly an early version of the self-titled album’s driving opening track “The Bells Ring”, reveal an interesting side to the band, a tender side underneath all of the power-pop bluster. It’s a testament to how versatile and capable The Swimming Pool Q’s were as a band.
If this whole collection—complete with rare footage of the band—seems a bit overwhelming for a first-time listener…well, it probably is. The three albums’ worth of material showcased here can be a bit of a rollercoaster, but it cements the legacy of a band that is sadly overlooked. Just re-releasing one of these albums would have been a worthwhile way to introduce the Swimming Pool Q’s to a larger audience, but The A&M Years goes further: it presents the band’s work as important entries in the underground rock catalog and asks us to follow suit.