Richard Swift: The Atlantic Ocean

[12 April 2009]

By Michael Kabran

Richard Swift is a time traveler. Most musicians’ studios are bursting at the seams with vintage instruments, a dizzying array of effects pedals and processors, and a preponderance of recording equipment—not to mention some herbal digestifs for inspiration. Swift’s studio, on the other hand, is relatively sparse. It requires no more space than a small (air-conditioned) storage unit or, more likely, your parents’ basement, because it houses only a single, singular device: a purple and gold, egg-shaped pod retrofitted with a beat-up La-Z-Boy recliner just big enough to fit Swift himself. The device, which I affectionately like to call the Swift-E-3000, contains a small keypad and a modified IBM XT computer circa 1983. It is from the Swift-E-3000 that all of Swift’s musical ideas spring forth.

Here’s how it goes down, as I imagine it. Every few months, Swift takes a brief respite from touring and promoting his growing discography. He tosses a few Fruit Roll-Ups, a box of Teddy Grahams, and a Capri Sun six-pack into a satchel, slaps on a Huffy helmet, some racing goggles, and a pair of leather riding gloves, and hops into the Swift-E-3000. Using his incredible imagination and the Swift-E-3000’s keypad, he enters the ingredients for a new song, selecting values for several customized Swift-E-3000 song variables: I.N.T.R.O…1982. V.E.R.S.E…1975. B.R.I.D.G.E…1920. Within moments, the Swift-E-3000 is up and running. Its lawnmower-sized engine whirs and sparks and Swift is off to various musical eras to collect parts that he will eventually combine into a song—or, as it’s referred to in Swift-E-3000 lingo, an amalgamation of distinct aural equations with an underlying thematic matrix event. After about a year-and-a-half and a dozen or so spins in the Swift-E-3000, a new album is born. (Side note: The Swift-E-3000’s computational unit refers to an album as the coalescenci of a profusion of an amalgamation of distinct aural equations with an underlying thematic matrix event. Or sometimes: “a bad slamma jamma.”)

At least that’s how I see it.

Whether Swift truly follows this process is certainly debatable (some, perhaps Swift’s publicists, might choose a word like, say, “false” here instead of “debatable”). However, what seems not so debatable is that Richard Swift doesn’t just love old music, he aspires to it—all of it.

On Swift’s previous releases, he covered seemingly every musical era in the 20th century. The Novelist touched on Tin Pan Alley (“The Forward” and “Sad Song St.”), Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys pop (“Lady Day”), and Dixieland (“Lovely Night”). Walking Without Effort and Dressed Up for the Letdown were heavy on the folk rock of the Byrds and Bob Dylan and the chamber pop of Nick Drake and the Beatles (see the brilliant “As I Go” and “Ballad of You Know Who” for proof). Last year’s Richard Swift as Onasis revealed a new weapon in Swift’s arsenal—distortion—which he deftly used on rockabilly (“Knee-High Boogie Blues”), garage rock (“The German”), electric blues (“SM60”), and sludge pop (“Greaseball Blues”) mini-anthems. Then, there was Swift’s last release, the remarkable Ground Trouble Jaw EP, on which Swift marvelously focused his efforts on none other than blue-eyed soul.

All in all, the amount of musical terrain on which Swift has tread is truly amazing. It’s shocking, then, after listening to Swift’s new album The Atlantic Ocean, to realize that there is one major decade that Swift missed in his previous releases: the 1970s. Fortunately, for fans of ‘70s music at least, Swift more than makes up for his previous omission. The Atlantic Ocean contains all of the major ‘70s musical landmarks and then some:

  • Disco? Check. Listen to “A Song for Milton Fehrer.”
  • Glam? Indubitably. See “The First Time.”
  • Funk? Absolutely. Check out “The Original Thought.”
  • Album rock? Double check. Take a listen to “Ballad of Old What’s His Name.”

Unfortunately, while Swift’s ability to reproduce the sound and aural quality of ‘70s music is remarkable and a sure achievement in audio engineering, the content of the songs on The Atlantic Ocean leaves something to be desired. On his previous releases, Swift’s toying with retro sounds and a lo-fi aesthetic enhanced his songwriting. But you always got the feeling that one day the challenge of reproducing a certain musical era would eclipse Swift’s desire or ability to create great songs. On The Atlantic Ocean that’s finally happened. The content of the music seems secondary to nailing the ‘70s sound; the overall tone and timbre of the songs is more important than the melody, chord changes, and lyrics.

Swift’s dry sense of humor is still ever present, as evidenced by his song titles. But it’s not enough to overcome fairly innocuous and inoffensive songwriting. Most of the songs are pretty catchy, but never quite work their way into your consciousness. Instead, they float on the periphery like circus music.

Still, after listening to The Atlantic Ocean, one can only wonder where the Swift-E-3000 will land Swift next. And keeping his fans guessing is one of the time traveler’s greatest gifts.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/72659-richard-swift-the-atlantic-ocean/