Whenever You're Ready
By: Eric Greenwood
Even in its heyday, which is now almost a decade past, Swell was always criminally ignored, except by the French for some inexplicable reason… So, a new Swell album released in 2003 will no doubt be met with similar apathy here in the United States. It's a shame, too, because Whenever You're Ready is too good just to be, well, forgotten again. Founding drummer Sean Kirkpatrick is back in the fold, and his presence makes Swell sound like a band again, especially after vocalist David Freel's laborious solo album released – somewhat misleadingly – under the Swell moniker just over two years ago.
Swell's charm has always resided in its sardonic marriage of resignation and apathy, which characterizes David Freel's voice perfectly. His deadpan delivery underscores Swell's acoustic neo-psychedelia and crisp hooks with cool aplomb. Freel's uncanny knack for stretching two chords in as many directions as possible, using rhythm and emphasis a la The Jesus And Mary Chain, is Swell's ace in the hole. Kirkpatrick's creative drumming takes Freel's arrangements one step further, though, making such simplicity sound truly alluring.
On the surface, Swell's music sounds lackadaisical and breezy- like a trip down the dreamy California tracks depicted on the cover art, but there's an undercurrent of nervous energy that binds it all together. "Next To Nothing" furthers Freel's longstanding obsession with religion over a deceptively jaunty hook, swirling keyboards, and hypnotic female backing vocals, "we tried faith/just to see how it looked/next to nothing." Sparse, distorted guitars chime in briefly and then disappear just as quickly as they came, as the song moves into its meaty, yet deliberately ambiguous hook, "yes, it was going to feel just fine/and it was going to be all right."
The playful strum of acoustic guitars antagonizes Freel's downtrodden voice, but they meet halfway to create a weird sense of tension on "War Comes Down", an unsentimental yet poignant look at the aftermath of some sort of horror, "lost in a sea of embraces/and I could see all the grief in their faces." The chirpy, acoustic patter of "Convince Us" sounds like it could have been lifted off Swell's quintessential third album, 1994's 41, while "So Easy, So Cool" glides through its laid back verses, threatening to rock in the choruses, as the layered, effects-laden guitars build to a minor upsurge. Weird edits and technological blips permeate the record as Swell reclaims its position as the most under appreciated band in the college rock pantheon.
If Whenever You're Ready has an obvious flaw, it's a lack of editing. With some songs stretching past the seven-minute mark, Swell has, perhaps, over-stayed its welcome (back). Fifteen songs are too much for any band to presume its listeners can swallow in one dose, particularly when your style is as minimal and simplistic as Swell's is. But an album packed with as many irresistible hooks as Whenever You're Ready deserves to be heard.