[Undercovered] Swell – Down

| Undercovered is an occasional series where our favourite musicians wax lyrical about a song they think is deserving of more attention |

By Conor Devlin ([the] caseworker)

I spent the dreary summer of 1992 living on Leith Walk, Edinburgh. There was too much rain and unhealthy behaviour, and a lot of paranoia – I had a bunker mentality, it was easier to stay away from people.

I listened to a tonne of new records that summer….most of it was hard to come by in Edinburgh…….these were the old days: if you wanted to hear something interesting you either had to send off a mail order coupon (cut from a magazine) or put in an order at your “local record specialist”. Being in Edinburgh, it took a week for an album to arrive from London. It was a drag but you got used to it…..

At some point that August, I read a review in Melody Maker of an album called “…Well?” by some San Francisco group called Swell. Part of the review read “…they don’t have a wall of sound: they have a shape, they curl like smoke in a subway tunnel”. Something about that review struck a deep chord; it sounded like a record that was already familiar to me, like something I’d been waiting for – something I could take down to my bunker. So I went straight to Avalanche Records on Grassmarket and put in my order – it arrived by the end of the week…..(the catalogue number was Mean Records 001.)

The sleeve art was a bleached out aerial photo of an amusement park. The band photo was four men sitting on the steps of a San Francisco Victorian….except their faces were smudged out. I liked that – who needed to see another band mugging it up? So it was all quite mysterious, and that was just the cover. Inside the music was minimalist and beautiful (‘At Long Last’, ‘The Price’), evocative and languid (‘Down’), and, in places, it could also be strangely menacing (‘Suicide Machine’)…..the lyrics were laconic and removed, and often at odds with the music – Freel’s whispered ‘at long last I dream of peace’ quietly defied the soaring guitars that followed it…(‘At Long Last’)…..

The album opened with an old man (Richard McGhee) introducing his demotape, requesting ‘some exposure, and….some recording contracts”….and then the music started: a staccato delayed electric guitar, a dry acoustic, some Bonham heavy drums, an intuitively understated bass, and a vocal that might have been low-key but could never be overlooked….by the time the distorted guitars crashed in after a wry ‘so pay attention’, I was already hooked. This was it! This was what I’d been looking for…perfectly contained in one record. It had a distinct personality, and like all good groups, Swell as a band seemed to exist in a vacuum: I couldn’t think of another band that sounded like this……they gave the impression that this was their thing, and if you liked it, cool. But if you didn’t, you were missing something. There were no comfortable genres here…..

Twenty years later and it’s still one of my favourite records….I suppose it always will be at this point. I hear it and I’m immediately back in the Edinburgh bunker. To my ears there’s not a dud on it. It does everything a good record should do – it takes me back, gives me a kick, makes me want to put everything else aside for 40 minutes and just get lost in it……mostly I just love the songs.

To paraphrase Steve Albini: ten fucking stars.

(footnote – after I moved to San Francisco, my first point of order was to send my demo-tape to Swell’s PO box…they came to our shows and were very supportive of everything we were doing – they even took us on tour! We couldn’t believe it. In the long run, all of [the] caseworker’s records have been produced by Monte, Swell’s bassist, who also became a firm friend….no higher honour for us….)

Swell – Down

More Info: Official
Buy Songs:
Year: 1992

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2 Comments

  1. Dez Foley
    April 22, 2011
    Reply

    that’s a great album, I think I bought it on the back of that same MM review; I knew nothing about the band at the time. think the album was home recorded? Still sounds great!!

    • Conor Devlin
      April 22, 2011
      Reply

      Hey Dez – it was home recorded, to an extent. As they were a touring band at the time, they took over the floor of 41 Turk Street in San Francisco (hence the title of the next album: “41”)…they turned it into a live/work space….in addition to living there, it contained their studio and rehearsal space….if you have the earlier version of “….Well?”, you’ll know there’s a hidden track at the end….about 15 minutes of the band rehearsing….this was taped with a mic hanging out of the window of 41…..!
      C.

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