Hey, buddy, I saw you leaning on my car...
Richard Swift, The Spinners, Bitches Brew and Brian Eno, Birds and Kanopy.
The Ballad of Richard Swift
HANK: It’s become something of an unofficial tradition to end Sunday with a glass with a couple fingers of amber liquid in it and Richard Swift’s Even Your Drums Will Die on the turntable. The latest release of Swift’s catalog, the album is pulled from a gig that Swift did at Pickathon in 2011. Released digitally on March 16, I’ve been lucky enough to spin the disk since late last year thanks to my buddy Adam gifting me a few months in the Secretly Society -- the perfect gift for the vinyl fan in your life. And shout out Adam who keeps coming back to the SubStack for the exceptional coverage of Glen Campbell. Don’t forget to invite your friends…
Swift was one of those artists that I never got into as much as I should. His debut, The Novelist is one part Wes Anderson and one part Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy: haunted and self-aware; vulnerable and playful. The sheer bravado of the title track’s refrain, “I am New York,” sweetened by the Swift’s saccharine croon:
Listen to Dylan
Shut the door
Nobody cares anymore
Trying so hard
To craft a rhyme
With nickels and dimes
Maybe mother, she was right:
"love is a waste
It's a pill everyone tastes
In your mouth"
I am New York
Tired and weak
Tried to write a book each time I speak
I mean, it’s just too damn perfect. In the midst of the great outpouring of literary fiction indie rock in the early 2000s, Swift felt very much of his time. But, there was also a musical eruditeness that groups like The Decemberists and Okkervil River, who were writing lyrics worthy of The Paris Review, didn’t share. Swift’s eyes seemed to flit most naturally back to the classic song forms. He played in musical tradition in the ways that someone Stephin Merrit does.
A recurring motif for Swift was to title a track “The Ballad of” filling the backend with “You Know Who” or “Old What’s His Name.” The playful title indicated a character sketch as well as how adept Swift was at playing with song forms.
Swift had this way with choruses. Nearly every track on here has a singable and poignant chorus from “My God what have I done?” on “The Ballad of You Know Who” to “I will listen to your every word on “Song for Milton Feher.”
The tracks on Even Your Drums Will Die pull from three of his first four albums with the majority coming from 2009’s The Atlantic Ocean. By this point, Swift had established himself not only as a talented songwriter, who could pull from the breadth of the Great American Songbook, but also as a sought after producer and sideman for groups like The Black Keys, Damien Jurado, and The Shins. But, if you know of Richard Swift even by name, I’m sure those names have come up to you before.
Working backward through Swift’s immense list of credits, I’ve been amazed at how many times that our musical journeys crossed.
From the splashes of futurism and vintage 45 sound on Valerie June’s debut:
To collaboration with Laetitia Sadier’s first solo record:
(To be honest, just being allowed to sit in the same room with Laetitia Sadier during recording would be about the highest honor I can think of)
To producing and contributing to the work of another incredibly intelligent songwriter, Kevin Morby:
For someone who racked up laudations for his producing, the first thing that strikes you on Even Your Drums Will Die is the stripped down, intimate recording. This record (and the live show) is immaculately sequenced. We begin with only Swift, a harmonica and piano, and one of the most amazing opening lyrics for a live set I can think of: “I said to Mary, ‘I hope you die.’” Swift eventually picks up a guitar on “Million Dollar Baby.” Just before flipping the disc over, on “The Songs of National Freedom,” the whole band shows up with an understated om-pah-pah underscoring Swift’s jaunty piano riff. The combo is incredibly focused. There’s nary a note out of place. Superfluous solos or flourishes are eliminated so that the song dominates. The counterpoint of guitar and Swift’s voice on “The First Time,” being a perfect encapsulation of this. Even as the song veers at the end toward less form and more texture, it’s still riffing off the same pattern that kicked the track off. As you might expect for someone as talented and known for his multi-instrumental work, Swift shifts around throughout the set though he’s mainly behind the piano, belting out an incredibly diverse set.
“The Songs of National Freedom” also kicks off this awesome 30 min set from Swift in 2009 at Mohawk Stage.
Churning through a lot of the same material as on Even Your Drums, the live recording here is a festive affair (h/t to Aquarium Drunkard for featuring the video in their Sidecar newsletter). Perhaps no track encapsulates the pure joy of Swift’s work than closer “Lady Luck.” The kicking groove of bass and drum lilted over by Swift’s falsetto makes you go looking for the songwriting credits to make sure this wasn’t written 50 years ago. “Lady Luck” soars to great heights on lyrics that seem pulled from a bluesman’s guitar case: “Lady luck she is lovely / Lady luck, she is free / But I wish sometimes that lady luck /She would find some time to spend with me.”
Especially on these live recordings, Swift’s delivery is sometimes so damn nasal (see “Original Thought”)! It really highlights the range and richness of his vocal tone. On Even Your Drums, Swift takes a break on “Lady Luck” to excoriate someone in the crowd -- “Hey buddy, I saw you from inside leaning on my car. What the fuck is up with that, huh? You see me leaning on your car?” Before getting back into the groove.
It’s this ad lib that makes all the difference for me. After listening back to Swift’s albums, for all their brilliance, there are moments where I have the ghost of this recording haunting me. Live performance is about immediacy: the happening in the here and now. And while most live records tend to leave me cool, the time capsule that these recordings capture feels just as immediate now as it did in 2009 or 2011.
There’s probably room in another newsletter to try and break down what’s happened to the singer-songwriter in the last decade. But, perhaps more than anything, the appeal of the singer-songwriter is the appearance of access into his, her, or their experience. We’re drawn to singer-songwriters because they give the sense that the self (much less someone else) might be knowable. it’s an extremely necessary fiction that we tell ourselves.
For all the ways that joy builds upon itself in these recordings of Swift, there are some exceptionally dark parts of Swift’s biography, too, that shouldn’t be shied away from. His death in 2018 was preceded by what must have been an extraordinarily sad and difficult time for him and his family. Reading the wonderfulRolling Stone piece on Swift (nee Ochoa), you get the sense of who was very much a studio rat: adept at pulling the best out of musical artists as diverse as Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats and Pedro the Lion while simultaneously being blind to himself.
It’s hard as shit to write about a death like Swift’s. I’m not anyone who knew Swift. I’m just a guy who became enamored with a record and felt like I should give back to that record everything that the record gave to me. I can’t imagine the whirlwind of emotions that must still be raw for his family. To be honest, I’m probably the type of person who romanticized that shit way too much when I was younger. Now that I’m older, I feel like it’s just as important to call out the destruction as the creation. And, I certainly don’t want to end this essay with some note of false hope, or try to make it seem like it’s all okay so long as I liked the music. So, I’ll end with Swift.
His recording studio, National Freedom, behind his home in Cottage Grove, Oregon was the subject of that tune “Songs of National Freedom” that I’ve come back to a few times here. Here’s one more return. In it, Swift sings:
We've seen the rain we've seen the sunshine
Darling you and I could never be wrong
I tried to hide away from some time
Seems like all I had was you and this song
I feel alive I feel alive like I could try for the first time
And killing it all
I made my way into the spotlight
Just to realize it's not what I want
I really tried to do what seemed right
But he said go to hell I'm lost in the fall
I feel alive I feel alive like I could live for the first time
We're killing it all
I'm moving along
At the speed of sound now
Remembering the songs of National Freedom
I'm alive I'm alive so tell my daughters not to cry
Talking About a Track
The Spinners - “Streetwise”
We’re only two weeks into the new WLFY newsletter and Hank’s writing is already messing with me. I couldn’t agree more with his thought: “Who needs a review when you can just listen to the damn thing?” That isn’t to say music writing isn’t important… I’m very excited to share a long piece on my favorite soundtrack of all time soon on this newsletter. The difference in this situation is... if I’m writing the truth... I really don’t have anything to say other than it’s a very cool song that I love to dance to morning, afternoon, and night. It’s a great song that I hope lifts your mood and brings happiness. Any more writing would be the equivalent of talking your ear off about why pizza is delicious.
I don’t know why I’ve always thought spiral staircases are cool to me…
I don’t know why those diners in the back of pharmacies are peak cool to me…
And I don’t know why “STREETWISE” is so cool to me… it just is.
*NOTE: I did a lot of digging on The Spinners and found this wonderful live concert/documentary if you want to learn more about the band.
“Full hour-long performance of The (Detroit) Spinners recorded in September 1976 for the PBS live concert program produced by member station WTTW in Chicago, Illinois; Soundstage.”
Bands You’re Trying to Avoid, Heat Check Cover Songs
H: A few weeks ago, my friend Jason recommended to me Nomeansno’s One. Nomeansno is one of those seminal punk bands or post punk bands. I really think we need to stop using terms like seminal and legendary, by the way. It’s like--seminal to whom? What PR person is getting paid to write this? And how lazy is it to call everything legendary. But anyway, I really enjoyed the record. Perhaps nothing more than the 15 minute cover of Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew.” It’s like Davis’ Bitches Brew, which was made to bring jazz into rock getting reinterpreted back into the rock context that it had never fully emerged from.
I mentioned the album to another friend who has actually toured with punk bands, who immediately started ranting about the number of times that someone has told him to listen to Nomeansno and if they’d just shut up already.
Anyway, this got me thinking: what are the bands that people tell you that you need to listen to that you’re just not going to?
And, it made me think about what covers are your favorite versions of songs that the band shouldn’t cover? Okay, so obviously there are the ironic versions of this, I’m thinking of Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Tortoise’s cover of “Thunder Road.” But, my favorite “straight up” cover that seems out of a band’s wheelhouse is the cover of Brian Eno’s ambient landmark “Music for Airports 1/1” by Psychic Temple and Mike Watt. Recorded live, in one afternoon, with no overdubs.
You can reply to this email if you got examples of bands that you’re tired of being recommended to you or heat check covers.
If you’re reading this from the US, it’s no secret that this winter has out and out sucked. And here in Northeastern PA where I am, spring takes till mid-May to get here in force. So, my son and I have been putting up birdhouses. We’re a pro-bird family, anyway (and that means pro squirrel, too, because it’s impossible to keep those tree rats out), but this is the first year I’ve put out birdhouses. Nothing’s happened yet, but it is nice to look out the window and hope that something decides to spend some time with you.
Most of my “One Thing” posts will be movie related as that’s been my obsession and field of study for over twenty years. Since I don’t know which reader has what streaming platforms… My one thing this week is a little homework: Get KANOPY. It’s a great (FREE with a library card) streaming service through your local library and you receive five plays a month. All of my one-thing movie recommendations will be from the Kanopy catalogue so nobody gets left out if they don’t have Criterion, Netflix, etc. It’s a massive streaming collection spanning from educational videos, art films, mainstream blockbusters, world cinema, hard to find documentaries, and much more.