To hail from Boston in the late 80s/early 90s was a good omen and the city always seemed to foster bands that saw both the noise and the beauty of pop and rock. Some leaned more towards beauty (the Lemonheads) and some towards noise (Pixies) and some were just all over the place depending on when you caught them. Swirlies definitely knew how to play both sides of this fence, even if they did lean more towards the gorgeous chaos of shoegaze. Their early work garnered them labels as a follower of My Bloody Valentine, but there was a lot more going on than that. Blonder Tongue Audio Baton was Swirlies first LP (discounting the prior What to Do About Them which was a collection of singles and a split EP) and is, in many ways, the best summary of their sound as a band.
The album is largely centered around songs that channel the fractured sense of pop that many indie bands of the period took up – the chords seem slightly off key, as do some of the guitar solos – and surround them with contrarian notions of found sounds, crackling and hissing static, Casio-keyed effects and Beach Boy-esque harmonies. Where the comparisons to My Bloody Valentine do get it right is in the vocals. Buried far enough down in the mix to nearly obliterate whatever the words are, the vocals take on the role of just another instrument, adding to the fray instead of standing out above them. But unlike MBV, whose long-praised masterpiece Loveless hides its individual songs in what amounts to one, long album piece of art, Swirlies’ songs stand on their own and don’t disappear down the memory hole by album’s end, refusing to sacrifice them in order to create an album work.
The bulk of the songs on the record follow the style of pop buried beneath layers of noise. “BELL,” “Pancake” and “Jeremy Parker” are dunked in noise from beginning to end, their power-pop edges blunted and hidden by the fuzz. “Vigilant Always” is full of the type of chiming guitars that so much of early-90s indie-rock harnessed themselves around and is arguably the album’s most beautiful song – even when it descends into punkish chaos for a minute or so, only to return to the beginning beauty and then back into the maelstrom for its closing. “His Life of Academic Freedom” is done in a style familiar to the band – subdued, 4-track sounding recordings awash in the ‘underwater’ sound of tape recordings, buried further with digital noise blips. It’s a quiet song in the midst of a frequently loud album and helps keep some of the songs from running together.
The last third of the album shows a focus that the first, swirlier (ha!) thirds of the album do not. “Park the Car on the Side of the Road” is frantic, off-key pop-punk that races along with little regard for the stability underneath the harmonies. “Tree Chopped Down” and “Wrong Tube” are mid-tempo explorations of the kind that are largely obscured, sonically, earlier in the album. It winds back together with the brief “Wait Forever” that recalls “His Life of Academic Freedom” in its washed tones.
Swirlies never achieved much commercial success (nor did any major bands associated with Boston’s ‘Chimp Rock’ scene), but they, without a doubt, created one of the true masterpieces of 90s lo-fi indie-rock. This is the kind of record and band that you will wait years to run into someone who knows them, but when you do, it’s like a secret handshake. And it feels so good to share that smile of recognition. words/ j neas
MP3: Swirlies :: Vigilant Always
MP3: Swirlies :: Jeremy Parker
eMusic: Swirlies – Blonder Tongue Audio Baton