It's a good thing that Swell has attached the years 1989-1994 onto the end of the title of this collection of b-sides. If they hadn't, some unknowing journalist might have hailed them as resurrectors of late '80s/early '90s Britpop. While the San Francisco Bay area natives have always displayed a fondness for early Jesus and Mary Chain and the Smiths, Swell has done a descent job of developing their own sound over the span of six albums. Luckily for us, the five year span from which Swell has chosen the 10 tracks that make up Bastards & Rarities 1989-1994 is the one that saw them produce two of their finest albums, Well? and 41. It was during that period that the band truly began to flourish, and with a bit of luck they could have been just as big as their inspirations from across the Atlantic.
Although this collection ignores two of Swell's more outstanding albums, Too Many Days without Thinking and For All the Beautiful People, it is a welcome return from the recent clunker, Everybody Wants to Know. That album, released in 2001, was actually the sole effort of front man David Freel and was not truly representative of what Swell was. Which is primarily why Bastards & Rarities is so much fun. Harkening back to the early days, we see a band that is learning to trade in their Velvet Underground-inspired hush for the Jesus and Mary Chain's stoned buzz. That development is most apparent on the opener, "Come Tomorrow", which matches the former's guitar riffs with the latter's booming drums. The following track, "Get Higher", ventures into Primal Scream-during-their-rave-days territory and is one of the better tracks Swell has released. "This is How It Starts" begins as an acoustic number before giving way to a shimmering finale that calls to mind My Bloody Valentine with half as many effects pedals.
The fourth track, "What I Saw", shows that Swell anticipated some of the success that Oasis would experience. It's also a track that the band may have been wise to use as a single, rather than save for the flipside. On "Too Many Days" they use a string section to help add variety to the mix, while the instrumental "Just Get Well" shows that Swell were paying attention to what Ride was doing as well. Perhaps because these ten tracks were intended as b-sides, the sound quality is impressive throughout Bastards & Rarities. The only fault is that after the first three tracks the drum sound is a bit hollow, giving away the only indication that these songs never made a proper release.
The quality of the 10 tracks that make up Bastards & Rarities is proof of how good Swell once were. Although relegated to b-side status and most likely only enjoyed by rabid Swell fans, these songs are almost entirely worthy of full-length status. Given that Swell has only one full-time member, it's hard to predict their future, however their past was a pretty glorious thing to behold.