When my brother Ben died of cancer in 1997 I had the distinctly uncomfortable experience of going through his record collection and picking through those albums that had been stacked in his room at my parents’ house. It was a horrible process, one that I really would have preferred to have avoided at the time but now, 15 years later, I treasure those records of his and the memories they evoke.
Ben and I had always been competitive with each other; whether playing table tennis or Elite, doing our ‘O’ levels or winding up our Dad, we were constantly trying to outdo each other. Sure, he was my best mate (he was lots of peoples’ best mate) but I suppose one-up-man ship is part of the territory. However, we shared a love a music and for most of our teenage lives our tastes pretty much coincided – The Beatles, Dire Straits, Queen and Elton John….typical teenage fodder! However, once we went to university and our musical horizons broadened our musical preferences aligned far less frequently. I don’t know whether this was our competitive relationship subconsciously seeping into our musical world but whilst I had a thing for Big Star, Ben opted for The Rockingbirds; I fell in love with Love’s Forever Changes, Ben with Ben Folds Five and so on. Of course there was much we agreed on, many bands or artists that were just too irresistible. Swell were one of these bands. …Well? was an album that Ben discovered and we both enjoyed immensely. And I still do to this day!
Swell are/were a four piece formed in San Fransisco in 1989. They played indie-rock. They were often mentioned in the same breath as Red House Painters and American Music Club but this was down to geographical reasons and journalistic laziness rather than any similarity in aesthetic. Swell sound (to my ears) nothing like either of the aforementioned bands. In fact I struggled to think of any of Swell’s contemporaries who were producing a remotely similar sound. Pavement? Too scuzzy and lo-fi. Fugazi? Too hardcore and shouty. Slint? Too portentous and ominous. The closest soundalike I could come up with when listening to …Well? prior to record club is Spoon, but only in as much as both bands build the majority of their songs around a briskly strummed acoustic guitar, layering the sound with clean electric guitars, often groovy bass runs and usually nimble and light percussion. But they don’t really sound all that similar, as I am sure the others will attest!
Regardless, Swell were unlucky. Their sound is immediately accessible, all the songs on …Well? are hook-laden and captivating and they deserved to sell a lot more records than they did. From ear worming its way into my consciousness all those years ago …Well? has become one of those records that always gives me that little thrill of anticipation just before the needle finds its groove. It’s one of those records I’m very glad my kid brother purchased – I just wish he’d bought a few more records by Swell and a few less by The Rockingbirds!
Nick listened: I wasn’t blown away by Swell (who I hadn’t heard of prior, I don’t think), but I did enjoy listening to Well, and sometimes that’s enough. I’ve been vacillating between the sheer existential assault of The Seer by Swans and the just very pleasant, enjoyable grooves and hooks of A Thing Called Divine Fits this week, and wondering which I prefer. It’s like comparing apples and oranges, obviously, but the enjoyable, easy-to-parse, safe-to-consume-in-company records often get listened to far more often than the astonishing, perception-realigning stuff. Anyway, I digress. Whilst I definitely didn’t get Red House Painters or American Music Club (not that I know either all that well), I didn’t quite get Spoon either, but it was certainly closer to that end of the spectrum. Joy Division were mentioned, and whilst there wasn’t the sense of present desolation you get from that band (nowhere near, in fact), there was something a little doomy about the linear, propulsive, crawling basslines that drove the songs along. And who on earth are The Rockingbirds?!
Rob listened: I don’t get Spoon, or Joy Division, or Red House Painters, but I do get a healthy dose of Ben when I listen to Swell. I loved ‘…Well?’ the first time he played it to me and I went on to love 3 or 4 more of their albums. There’s something smoky, sassy and backwoods about ‘…Well?’. It sounds handmade and warm, like getting back together with an old friend and conversing in a shared language. Which, in a way, I suppose it is.
Graham listened: I had never heard anything by the band but was aware of the name. If this had been on my radar at the time I am sure I would have indulged. Wonderfully accessible, loose and relaxed sound which would have ticked lots of boxes for me, just at the time (post ‘Green’) I was falling out of love with American bands. Will be asking Tom for a borrow.