[31 October 2004]
Short, but sweet. That concise description of Seth Swirsky’s solo album doesn’t do it full justice, but it’s true. This soft pop is awash in harmony and melody, a throwback to the sounds of more idealistic decades gone by. These eleven short musical delights seem to pass in the blink of an eye, leaving the hungry listener wanting far more.
Swirsky, a renaissance man of sorts (author/songwriter/artist/collector) has collected an impressive gathering of musical friends to help him with this debut endeavor, but Instant Pleasure is anything but the work of a newcomer. Swirsky has already penned some 350 songs for many of the world’s top recording artists (among them Celine Dion, Al Green, Michael McDonald, Rufus Wainwright, Taylor Dane, Tina Turner, the Four Tops, the Go-Gos, Air Supply, and Smokey Robinson), so he’s no stranger to the art of fine songwriting. Further, he’s co-written songs with an impressive arsenal of pop composers like Eric Carmen, Marshall Crenshaw, and Felix Cavaliere.
As they say in the investment biz, past performance is no guarantee of future success. But Swirsky’s track record stands him in good stead here—he knows his craft well and the comfort level and confidence is obvious in these performances. Seth’s voice is clear, pleasant and understated, never detracting from these uber-catchy melodies and intriguing lyrical portraits. The production values are layered and masterful, featuring intricate instrumental arrangements and a sense of “right mix, right song” throughout.
Of course, this is unsurprising, considering the talented Dorian Crozier (Five for Fighting) produced, mixed, and recorded it (when he wasn’t adding in drums, bass guitar, programming, and keyboards). Instant Pleasure is warm and rich and loaded with beautiful melodic moments.
The title track leads off the CD, a most infectious tongue-in-cheek glance at our society’s fast-paced desire for immediate gratification. Some of you might recognize it from the Big Daddy soundtrack, which featured a version recorded by Rufus Wainwright. Since that version never really got much exposure, Swirsky was determined to do it his pop way—and listeners will be glad he did. John Mayer’s guitarist Michael Chavez helped on this track, and former Rembrandt Danny Wilde contributed backing vocals.
It’s hard not to root for a narrator who doesn’t ask for much (“all I want is someone to love me and give me sex whenever I want it”) and displays a bit of career bravado as well (“All I want to do is paint / But I hear the pay ain’t great / Think I’ll do it anyway”).
The fun continues with “Herman Cherry,” Swirsky’s quirky biographical musical salute to the abstract expressionist (1909-1992). Swirsky happened upon an unusual description of the painter in a used bookstore and knew it would become a song: “Herman Cherry is a very tiny man / A walrus moustache and an ever-present cigar / He can jitterbug with the very best of them.”
Swirsky avoids traditional rhyme schemes at time, yet still manages some wonderfully poetic descriptions of the man’s art: “Throbbing colors like a heart, always beating very hard / In no specific time or place / In textures made of sand and utterly unplanned / Everything in its place.” The song is another three-minute vignette, and features some nice electric guitar and background vocals from the other Rembrandt, Phil Solem.
Solem’s acoustic guitar is a standout on the next track “Only Me Fair May”, another short, sweet song that captures a gorgeous pastoral feel, with sort of a Stephen Duffy/Lilac Time vibe to it. It’s an intriguing love song, the inspiration for which was a woman whose email address was the title of a Robert Stevenson poem.
The CD’s first single, “It’s Still Love”, has a fun history. Swirsky originally wrote it for Ringo Starr, as sort of a sequel idea to that of “All You Need Is Love.” An ambitious Swirsky got the song to Mark Hudson and Ringo, but too late for their most recent album (which was already done at the time). He did like it, though, and it might be on his next record. Swirsky’s version is laced with Beatle spirit, complete with George Harrison-style guitars and dreamy backing harmonies (in part provided by Andy Sturmer). It’s a song one can easily envision Ringo singing, as it reminds us of noble sentiments: “It’s still love that we need even more than before / It’s still love, I believe, that the world’s aching for / ‘Cause when push comes to shove, it’s still love.”
Swirsky is a master of the small musical portrait. “Roger” is one such snapshot, capturing a life through mentioning odd details (“he plays the ukelele well”) and how escalating rents exiled him to Brooklyn. In this brief song (it’s only a minute and a half or so), there’s more of that Lilac Time-ish sort of quiet melodic poignancy. The instrumental arrangements are perfect, and listeners are left wanting to know more about this man who “lives between a pool hall and a bridge”.
Another short musical mood-piece follows with “Wednesday Unraveling”. Swirsky’s guitar and voice are accompanied by Stevie Black’s fine cello work, a man’s bright morning ruined by a disturbing phone call (“she’s leaving”).
One of my personal favorites here is “Edinburgh,” a song narrated by someone caught between two friends about to be (and then later, already) involved in a love affair. This go-between agrees to provide the song he wrote for her to the friend, but is concerned that he not hurt her when she falls in love with him. Once again, the instrumental arrangements and production choices provide a rich texture that adds much to the song’s story.
If you’re wondering what that song the guy wrote for the girl sounded like, you don’t have to wait long. “Bike Trip” actually is that song (and I swear it sounds like something that Stephen Duffy might have written), though it certainly stands on its own merits, a dulcet love song for the ages. Stevie Black provides an Indian sraj coda.
Swirsky takes a Lennon-ish tone in “It’s Always the Same”, shedding musical light on the indecision of life, the difficulty of writing and holding on to dreams and goals, the love-hate relationship every artist goes through with his/herself. Did I mention this one also was short and sweet?
“Ordinary Man” is a musical argument that contends quiet is the new loud. This ordinary man rescinds his former dreams of fame, trades his cellphone for a book of poetry, and emerges an artist content with the simple pleasures of life.
The closing song (also the record’s longest) is “Butterfly on Jupiter”, a paean to the sweet comforts of home amid the frenetic calling of interplanetary fame: “And I feel like a butterfly on Jupiter, lost and all alone / So beautiful, but you know I’d rather be somewhere near my home.” John Fields (yes that John Fields) lends some impressive bass guitar work, while Andy Sturmer contributes backing vocals.
Swirsky is a talented performer, but he benefits from surrounding himself with superb musicians (including Tommy Barbarella, Jimmy Coup, Brian Gallagher, Justin Meldal-Johnsen, Chris Testa, and Paul Trudeau, along with those already mentioned above). The end product is phenomenal—a stellar debut by any measure and one that will bring a smile to many a listener.
Instant Pleasure is a fine testament to Seth Swirsky’s talents as a songwriter, lyricist, guitar player, and vocalist. Perhaps he should have been singing his own songs sooner than this, but I for one am grateful regardless. My only real criticism is the length of the CD—the whole thing runs just under a half hour. Still, these 11 memorable songs capture moods and nuances of the artistic life though the twin gifts of catchy melody and harmonies. Since it’s so short but so sweet, I suppose the only remedy is to listen twice as much.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/swirskyseth-instant/