My introduction to the Swirlies came many, many moons ago (well, in 1993, to be exact), at a college radio station-sponsored gig at a tiny shack in New Britain, Connecticut, a show at which the band members of the two bands on the bill nearly outnumbered the paid attendance. To those few of us in the audience, the Boston quartet seemed like the rightful heirs to the both the shoegazing and lo-fi thrones, with their waves and waves of glorious distortion, smooth, watery male/female vocals lines, and penchants for inexpensive recording technology, wacky tape samples, and homemade merchandise. Comprised of guitarists/vocalists Damon Tuntunjian and Seana Carmody, bassist Andy Bernick, and drummer Ben Drucker, they made a complexly layered brand of music they christened "chimp rock".
For awhile, the Swirlies and their chimp rock were very much in vogue with the East Coast set, even after Drucker departed and Carmody left to form her own well-regarded but short-lived band, Syrup USA, only a few years into the band's recording career. Unlike other bands with Boston-area connections, the Swirlies never made much of a splash on the national scene. They never got a video on Beavis and Butthead like Helium (the other band on the bill at that sparsely attended long ago show), they never achieved mainstream critical acclaim like Lou Barlow and Sebadoh. They just sort of endured, through lineup change after lineup change, releasing albums, EP's, seven inches, remixes, and homemade tapes/CD's of varying degrees of quality and self-indulgence. For whatever reason, they also seemed to have laid down some sort of self-imposed embargo on straightforward album releases, having failed to put together a regular old album of new material since the mid-'90s.
Now they're back -- well, sort of. I say sort of back because, while it's great to have new Swirlies material again, Cats of the Wild, Volume 2, the Swirlies' first "real" release in seven years, is not the LP Swirlies fans have been waiting for. Cats of the Wild is more of an extended EP, with seven songs that show them to be pretty much back on form musically, and twenty additional minutes of intermittent weirdness that show them to be as self-indulgent with their bonus tracks as ever.
Original member Seana Carmody appears on some of the songs, though in what capacity is not quite clear from the obfuscated liner notes. It's clear that, at the very least, she lends some excellent backing vocals to the first track, "One Light Flashing I Love You", a bouncy, moog-y delight of a song. It's lighter and sweeter than most of the Swirlies songs I remember, but great all the same.
The other songs on Cats of the Wild tread more typical Swirlies territory. Tuntunjian takes all the lead vocals in that sorta-British-accented voice that's really almost too polished and pretty to be in a lo-fi band. "Give Us Moon Rocks" and "Le Bag" have heavy, multi-layered, guitar- and keyboard-centered sounds, while "Indian Ocean Drive" has the airy simplicity of the golden age of Creation Records. "Sleepytime" has some serious guitar distortion, owing a significant sound debt to My Bloody Valentine. "Rare Moment" is ultra-chill, with breathy vocals buried way down in the mix and a groovy rolling accompaniment, while "Little Tail" is so quiet as to threaten to fade into absolute nothingness. The three tracks of silence and the final track of twenty minutes of noise and tape samples is also typical Swirlies territory, though not territory that I'm particularly interested in or intrigued by, since, as executed here, it's rather run-of-the-mill stuff.
I wouldn't say the Swirlies have ever been one of my favorite bands, but I will say that they are a band for whom I have a whole lot of fondness. If you are of a like mind, Cats of the Wild, Volume 2 will do nothing to sway you from either of those convictions.