By Jonathan Marx
Catch-all (Yep Roc)
Playing March 13 at 12th & Porter Playroom
The month of February saw the release of two sterling pieces of retro-power-pop pleasure: The New Pornographers’ ragged, slightly demented album Mass Romantic and The Rosenbergs’ sunny, slicked-up Mission: You. Now March dawns with the long-awaited arrival of the debut CD by the Nashville-rooted power-pop collective known as SWAG. Whatever bug is in the air that has young musicians across the country bringing back big hooks and indelible guitar play, it’s now apparently gotten into the systems of the veterans.
A “for-fun-only” project founded a couple of years back by Mavericks regulars Robert Reynolds and Jerry Dale McFadden—with the help of Wilco drummer Ken Coomer, Cheap Trick bassist Tom Petersson, local singer-songwriter Doug Powell, and producer Brad Jones—SWAG garnered enough buzz through their occasional live appearances and limited-edition singles that North Carolina indie label Yep Roc offered to release their debut album Catch-all and to promote it with gusto. But McFadden says that the guys came together with no great aspiration beyond being “kind of a reaction to what radio has to offer.” He insists that “gone are the days when you can turn on Top 40 and hear a big variety of things.” Powell assents, saying, “We just really wanted to make a record like the records we loved when we were growing up.”
The origins of SWAG are as arcane as their motivations. The locus is McFadden, who grew up in Oklahoma with Powell, played with Coomer on a Jason Ringenberg album, is a bandmate of Reynolds, and knew Petersson because they used to live in the same apartment building. According to Powell, the complete SWAG lineup met for the first time when they went into the studio.
Because of their more awkward process of assembly, SWAG approach their chosen genre with less bloodlust than bands like New Jersey’s Fountains of Wayne or Detroit’s The Waxwings, or Nashville’s bright young hope The Shazam. Catch-all is about recreation, not innovation, and most of the songs are brazen attempts to make something that could have emerged from a garage in the mid-’60s, or could have been an AM radio staple in the early ’70s. The melodies and harmonies are Beatle-esque; the guitars jangle, chime, or slither; and the sound is as echoey as a junior-high bathroom.
Which is not to say that the willful copycatting is off-putting—far from it. The horns, bells, and coos on “When She Awoke,” for example, may be shamelessly ripped off, but the chorus is so dreamy that the song sounds more timeless than dated. The same is true of the string coda of “Louise,” the stun-ray organ on “You,” and the full four-minute stomp that is “Ride.”
“[Catch-all] was never meant to be a record,” Powell admits. “If it was, we would never have devised something that was so overtly derivative.” He describes the album as “genre produced”: The group would refer to different tracks as “the Zombies song” or “that one that sounds like Pet Sounds.”
“Certain songs have an obvious attempt to replicate something,” McFadden concedes, “But it all goes together. I can’t pinpoint what it is. It’s Brad Jones’ production, really.”
If the band continues, Powell believes that they’ll maintain “the grammar” of retro power-pop, “as well as what Brad Jones brings to the table as somebody producing now.” But he also thinks that the band will develop its own sound. “Already,” he says, “there’s a synthesis going on between what we each chased down apart from SWAG.”
McFadden agrees, saying, “We would all love for it to take off, to really do something with it.” The problem is that everyone in the band has a successful musical outlet already, and in Powell’s case, he has yet another career in the lucrative field of computer graphics. (He was one of the key designers of Todd Rundgren’s Web site for a couple of years.) “It’s such a major pain to get anything organized,” Powell says. “Sometimes I think it’s not worth it, and then we get together and it’s just...magic.”
The fact that nobody in SWAG needs for it to succeed—and that any success would just be a bonus—is the reason for the band’s name. “Swag” is a commonly used term for the promotional T-shirts, records, and gewgaws that promoters give out to musicians and the press, and SWAG is intended in the same spirit of largesse. As McFadden explains: “This is the free stuff on the side.”
To the river
Organizers of the annual Nashville River Stages festival have just announced the official lineup for this year’s event, taking place May 4-6 on five downtown outdoor stages. As in past years, the talent is a mixed bag, ranging from noteworthy local favorites (Lucinda Williams, John Prine, Steve Earle) to the expected big-name attractions (Black Crowes, Blues Traveler, Bob Dylan, Wallflowers) to a few worthwhile festival repeats (Earle, Cheap Trick). The most interesting and unusual performer on the list is Femi Kuti, whose music updates the groundbreaking Afrobeat sound perfected by his father, the late Nigerian musician Fela Kuti.
Indeed, River Stages would probably elicit a lot more excitement if Kuti’s name were more typical of the bookings, rather than an exception. Much of the lineup reads like a list of MOR/radio-ready papmeisters—Train, Evan & Jaron, Joan Osborne, Paul Thorn—although it is fleshed out by a few curious or intriguing choices (such as a reformed lineup of The Cult).
Hey, I love the idea of a big-scale music festival, and I recognize that to make such a festival work, you gotta appeal to as broad an audience as possible. But where are the choices that would make this event even more vibrant, even more inclusive? Instead of the typical round of jam bands (Soup, String Cheese Incident, Pat McGee), why aren’t we getting more performers with a genuine air of excitement surrounding their music? Wouldn’t River Stages only be strengthened by the addition of acts like OutKast or Moby—whose undeniable grooves would instantly create a sea of heaving hips and smiling faces? And what about some of the rock acts who’ve released some thrilling records of late? Where’s Stephen Malkmus? The Donnas? Spoon?
But most important, why isn’t there any Latin music on the bill? Never mind that our city has been home to a growing Latino population for the last decade or more, the fact remains that nothing would sound better wafting on the nighttime spring air than the interwoven rhythms of congas and claves. Cachao’s phenomenal set at last year’s Franklin Jazz Festival only bears out the fact that Latin music has incredible, undeniable—and cross-cultural—appeal. And this is exactly what a festival should do: bring together as many different cross-sections of a community as possible.
But most important, why isn’t there any Latin music on the bill? Never mind that our city has been home to a growing Latino population for the last decade or more, the fact remains that nothing would sound better wafting on the nighttime spring air than the interwoven rhythms of congas and claves. Cachao’s phenomenal set at last year’s Franklin Jazz Festival only bears out the fact that Latin music has incredible, undeniableand cross-culturalappeal. And this is exactly what a festival should do: bring together as many different cross-sections of a community as possible.
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