As a means of introduction, Secretly Canadian has lovingly repackaged two Richard Swift discs into one two-disc volume. You'll be glad you met him.
Richard Swift is preparing to release a new CD next spring, but for those of you who've missed out on his earlier work, Secretly Canadian (his new label) has repacked two older discs, The Novelist and Walking Without Effort, into a two-disc collection entitled The Collection Vol. 1 (though stores are listing it as The Novelist/Walking Without Effort--confused yet?). I can't comment on the double-CD packaging, which I assume is quite handsome, because my review copy is a one-CD promotional version. There are two benefits to my version. The first is that the entire package is only 50 minutes long and fits nicely on one disc, so I don't have to move my lazy ass to the stereo to change CDs after The Novelist ends. The second is that Secretly Canadian includes, printed on the CD, a clever method of deterring sales to used record stores: "You're an asshole if you pay more than $1 for this record. You're a bigger asshole if you try to sell it for more than $1." Touché.
The first disc is a pop cabaret record. Think Rufus Wainwright if his songs were shorter and featured fewer instruments and overdubs. The second disc is closer to the folky guitar pop of Ron Sexsmith or piano balladry of popular '70s singer-songwriters. Each album begins with an instrumental. "Foreward" (It's curiously misspelled, but get it, as in the foreword of the novel written by The Novelist.) sounds equal parts Mardi Gras parade, Disney musical, and nature documentary. Believe it, sister! It's one of the few times I wished that an instrumental opening track were much longer. The subsequent songs continue to match the obscure feel of the opener. Swift's voice is filtered to sound scratchy and old. But then again, everything sounds old. The piano was recorded in a smoky saloon. The organ was bought second hand and is probably damaged by flood water. The guitar was likely miked by a person without a degree in recording engineering. The Novelist comes across as a discovered artifact rather than a contemporary release. Either Swift put a lot of time and effort into creating such a vibe, or he just doesn't know what the hell he's doing in a recording studio.
"Lovely Night" is a winner no matter the sound. It's both catchy and mysterious, and at four and a half minutes, it's positively epic for Swift. "The Novelist" is nothing but piano and accordion. "Looking Back, I Should Have Been Home More" is not only the best song title in the collection, but it also resembles Bacharach and Randy Newman ballads. Swift closes the album by repeating, "Remember when you loved me, babe". Overall it's a diverse disc and demands repeated listens.
Walking Without Effort begins with a more conservative instrumental. It manages to evoke Jon Brion's soundtrack work, implementing acoustic guitar, vibraphone, and keys. The instrumental once again sets the tone for the album. The songs here sound more current (by way of the '70s), and Swift's voice sounds natural. The accompanying instruments are more likely to be horns and drums than the banjos and accordions of the first record. The pleasures of hearing this record are nearly equal to The Novelist. Who can resist a delicious pop song, especially when the arrangements are heavy on the horns and vibes? One thing I didn't miss at all, probably because I was already so interested in the music, is the lack of a traditional drum kit. Some songs seem to have a snare buried in the mix, and others do include a bass drum and cymbals, but most survive wonderfully without the percussion by relying on the acoustic guitar as the beat-keeper.
The somber pace of the songs grates on the attention span during Walking Without Effort. I longed for Swift to pick up the pace at least once or twice. To the listener with attention deficit disorder, I would highly advise not listening to the two discs back to back. Kudos to Secretly Canadian for packaging them on separate CDs.
Swift certainly is an interesting find, and he certainly creates music imagistic and imaginative enough to warrant titles such as The Novelist. This collection is a brief but rewarding introduction to a songwriter willing to take a few risks, even though he's basically just playing the same songs we've already heard before.