words // john flanagan
Jimmy Carter met Castro in Cuba, the Beltway snipers were arrested, and the world lost Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes the year Burlington’s somber-shred band, Swale, first plugged in. And while most groups can’t brace the unsettling impact of ten years, Swale suggest with their new debut full-length album, A Small Arrival, that they’re just getting started. The delays – addiction, bankruptcy, and babies, to name three – could perhaps be heard confronted directly in many of the album’s frank and profound lyrics, but the band’s 2004 EP, Verdigris, already bespoke mature writing voices from Swale’s principal writers: husband and wife duo Eric Olsen and Amanda Gustafson. Drummer and songwriter Jeremy Frederick’s writing/vocal talents wouldn’t appear on-record until Waterlanding, the band’s 2007 EP.
A Small Arrival sustains the anxiety of Swale’s first two EPs, but does so with improved sound, more thoughtful arrangements, and with less raw angst. The album’s opening track, “Waterlanding,” comes directly from the Waterlanding EP, which also features “Wassurlandung,” a glitched-out version. With its forever-long intro and refusal to establish a beat until well past the two-minute mark, “Waterlanding” introduces not only Olsen’s admitted “fear/obsession about the ridiculousness of a waterlanding,” but it also portends the album’s binding theme of nervous fear due over an unseen, encroaching crisis, ultimately confronted and defeated, as indicated in two of Gustafson’s ballads, “If You Get Lost” and “Overcoat.” “Since writing the song,” Olsen says about “Waterlanding,” “they’ve gone and fucking successfully landed on water.”
Swale formed out of Burlington’s Speilpalast Cabaret, where Gustafson and Olsen co-directed the fishnet-happy event’s band; Frederick was the drummer. Gustafson and Frederick had already had a musical history playing together in former local band Wide Wail. Prior to that, Gustafson, whose grandfather was an opera singer, played and sang with her sister in a Grateful Dead cover band, called Rain for the Roses. “Donna Godchaux was an early musical influence,” she says.
In the beginning, Swale included bass player Nicole Valcour, of the band Construction Joe, who was later replaced by Zach Ward, of Guppyboy and Sixth Great Lake. Eventually Swale dropped the bass altogether. “Inevitably they grow tired of Eric’s insistence on smoking large cigars during practice, and politely decline our invitations to return,” Gustafson says. Tyler Bolles contributes bass parts on a smattering of A Small Arrival‘s tracks, and Burlington expat/former Jazz Guy Herb van der Poll plays one on the crunchy, weird “Edible.” During their live shows, the instrument’s absence goes unnoticed. Swale’s sound is consistently substantial and enclosed, and that they listen more to each other than do to themselves is obvious.
On Sept. 28th, Swale will climb back onto the same sunken Radio Bean stage they began on ten years prior to the day. Attendees of the anniversary/release party can expect no less than a celebration and performance of A Small Arrival‘s masterfully-crafted menu, which at some points haunts with uneasy musings on duality and death – Frederick’s “Bittersweet” – and at other times consoles à la emergency blanket: “If You Get Lost.”
On Swale’s earlier EPs, Gustafson’s voice and writing style carries the same forlorn, not to say brilliant, apathy of Aimee Mann (the song “Cancer,” on Verdigris). With A Small Arrival, it’s clear she’s achieved incomparability. The first song she sings on the album is one of Frederick’s, “Soul Piggy Bank.” It opens with a weightless melody impossible not to nod along to. “I’m not making enough to get by,” she begins, “even though I’m in the show.” Harmonic oohs and ahs punctuate the song’s lyrical abstractions, grounding them in some daydream unity. Her song “Middlesex” is equally cryptic, though it establishes a cohesive narrative not unlike a Denis Johnson short: “Living in Middlesex, out by the interstate, my life is a total wreck, how did it get this way? Less than a week ago, sleeping on dirty floors, with George and his mother, ’cause I didn’t have a choice.” When asked about the song, Gustafson explained, “George is a dog.” A glockenspiel matches the sing-songy vocal melody above an acoustic guitar, Gustafson’s 200A Wurlitzer, and some light tambourine hits. An eerie saw interlude, played by Jonnie Day Durand, enters after the third verse.
Gustafson’s final song on the album, “Overcoat,” is a straightforward, twee-like love ballad. The lyrics stress A Small Arrival‘s overarching theme of self-doubt and the necessity of companionship to abate existential anxiety. Life may hurt at times and may never make sense, the song teaches, but we can bear this isolation through the comfort of a paradox, that we are all together alone.
This quasi optimism is reflected in Olsen’s finest songs on the album, “The Last Room You’ll Ever Sleep In” and “Fainéant.” In the former, Olsen reflects on his grandfather’s suicide following his relegation to a nursing home. The writing is outstanding: “Lord, believe, breathe, and choose the Beatitudes, the King of Jews. Rules may lay you to bed, but no one is better off dead.” He lays into a fuzzy solo before delivering the track’s final blows, where he again provokes the difficulty of bearing random existence: “You could tell us that nothing is worse then waking up in a world God made up.” In “Fainéant,” his lyrics address the limits of being, how aspirations and achievements are merely dreamlike, and how in the end, what we do amounts to doing nothing at all. Perhaps this nothingness is for the best, the song suggests. Think Oedipus; think Chinatown. The cathartic message A Small Arrival avoids is the tragedy of action. The final rumination is principally Orwellian, that submission is freedom: “Grab the wheel, we don’t want to drive. We’ll go where you want. Fainéant.”
Frederick’s briefly politicizes A Small Arrival with “Electable,” written and delivered expertly as a denouncement aimed, perhaps, at the hazards of our stagnant Congress. “The burning of stars, feet on the ground with folded arms. They’re all the same,” he sings. This track, along with “Pay Attention” and “Bittersweet,” exhibit a voice from Frederick that’s more confident than his singing on “The Down,” the final track on Waterlanding. It’s a pleasure to hear him unleash vocally with such clean fervor.
Alex Toth of Rubblebucket also appears on A Small Arrival, as part of Hot Box Horns, a one-and-done band rounded off by Russ Flynn (tuba), Geoff Kim (clarinet), Kalmia Traver (sax), and Joanna Yagerman (trombone). The horns color “The Last Room” with “Uncle Albert”-esque arrangements. Casey Rae, the former Seven Days music editor, contributes drum programming on “Electable.” The album’s liner notes also bill him for “Low end theory” (harmony?) on “Soul Piggy Bank.” Rae, along with Steve Williams, mixed the album.
A Small Arrival was recorded primarily at Swale’s Pine Street studio space, The Box. Daryl Rabidoux recorded and engineered the project, though, unsurprisingly, Ryan Power’s golden touch helped out, too, on “If You Get Lost.”
The ubiquitous Power will join Swale on Friday for their Radio Bean soiree, as will Greg Davis, Paper Castles, Brett Hughes & Kat Wright, Ryan Ober, Appalled Eagles, and another omnipresent nightfly, DJ Disco Phantom.
And so, with diversity and paradox – and in a beautifully silkscreened package – A Small Arrival finally arrives. The band joked recently before a North End Studios audience that their CDs have been lost in the mail all this time. Whatever the delay was, it’s been worth the wait.