close your eyes
 
[music, albums]

IX: 1994 Swell - 41


Swell - 41
In the door, up the stairs

The poll
In the reader's poll it was a draw between Portishead's first Dummy and Nirvana's last Unplugged. Both of those albums gave me the chills when they came out. But somehow they didn't stand the slightest chance against the chef d'œuvre of one of the most original eclectic bands of the 90's.

Number mysticism
I am 41 years old now. 41 is also my minimal pulse. When you rotate the digits in 1994 by one position you get 4199. 41 is the title of Swell's third record. Named after the address of the warehouse where they recorded this album (and the two before) in San Francisco. 41, Turk Street in the sleazy Tenderloin district.

Chez Swell
The record is constructed as an aural visit to this place. It starts with some street noises. Then we hear a key turning in the lock, the main door opening and being slammed. Someone is going up the stairs. The door of the room is open and there is a faint rising guitar sound which becomes the melody of the first song, Is that Important?. A slow adequate introduction into the captivating world of David Freel (guitars), Sean Kirkpatrick (drums) and Monte Vallier (bass) who called themselves ironically Swell. Like a husband says "oh that's swell" when his wife announces that his mother-in-law is about to come.

Nirvana went nowhere. Where did Swell go?
In a way they anticipated their commercial failure with this name. John Peel invited them to a BBC session and called them the next big thing after Nirvana and Pavement. 41 was their first album on a major (Warner) but the label prevented them from ever getting big by not releasing their next record. There is a song on 41 I wrote about before called Don't Give having a ringing phone in it which nobody ever picks up. It is like a metaphor for their successlessness. Maybe this was the call which would have settled everything. But they didn't answer it. Instead they made great mesmerizing music around a phone ringing in vain.

What is so special about Swell?
I think it is the guitars. There is an acoustic folky guitar playing the sunny hook lines and a noisy fuzzy electric guitar in a Jesus & Mary Chain vein creating the dark undertow. Those two guitars blend the two sides of San Francisco. The mild warm climate and the fog obstructing the light. Or the laid-back and easy going way of life and the gloomy world of drug abuse and criminality. There are a lot of other characteristics which contribute to their dense sound. Kirkpatrick's restrained precise but powerful way of drumming, David Freel's cool dry baritone, Monte Vallier's jazzy way of playing the bass, the intimate room atmosphere coming from the lo-fi recording technique and their use of long pauses to augment the tension of the songs.

Genealogical music tree
There is a lot of different music Swell have integrated into their trippy sound. Joy Division for the occasionally menacing ambiance. Dream Syndicate for the psychedelic guitars. The languid dreaminess of Mazzy Star for whom they opened at their first gig in San Francicso. A bit of the Weltschmerz of Mark Eitzel's local American Music Club. Plus a dash of Ennio Morricone's lush ambient western soundtracks.

Going underground
It all finishes with the guy leaving the room going down the stairs and going outside. He buys a ticket for the subway, takes it and an old guy reads all the lyrics while you hear the doors of the train opening and closing every minute or so. We are back in real life after an hallucinating visit to the rehearsal room of one of the most unique sounding bands of the 90's in the most beautiful city of the world.

Here is the overview of the series 40 years, 40 albums of which part IX was this post.

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