Saturday, July 14, 2007

Tripping with Adam Franklin of Swervedriver

My wife let slip that she doesn't always groove on me writing about music, so I know of at least one reader who might want to sit this one out. You see, Adam Franklin's in Seattle tonight at the Crocodile Cafe (he also does a free in-store appearance at Sonic Boom Records in Ballard), and I'm as happy as a little girl with a shiny new Easy Bake Oven over this news.

Unsung Rock History Lesson of the Day: In 1995 Creation Records, Britain's biggest buzz-band-harvester of a music label was busy wiping the bums of Brit brats Oasis with a wheelbarrow-full of advertising, promotion, and royalty dollars. As a result, Creation tapped out their coffers so badly that they treated a lot of other records they released around that time like the proverbial ugly stepkids in the basement. One of those albums was Ejector Seat Reservation, the third album by a scruffy quartet named Swervedriver.

Swervedriver arose in the wake of that UK music genre known as the Shoegazer scene, which crossed the drone of the Velvet Underground and the pop hooks of the Jesus and Mary Chain with a lot of drugs in the late eighties. Shoegazers were known for their introspective onstage demeanor (hence the name) and for coaxing all manner of noise and effects out of their guitars. Depending on your predilection, shoegazer music sounded like either a swirling symphony of distortion and atmosphere, or a conventional British pop band stuck in a jarringly-noisy broken vacuum cleaner.

Anyway, unlike most of the Shoegazers with which they were lumped, Swervedriver rocked like lean and holy hell. On their first LP, 1991's Raise, they fuel-injected the shoegazer arsenal of guitar effects pedals with the directness of flannel-clad American indie rock a la Sonic Youth and Husker Du. And by the time they released their even-better follow-up disc Mezcal Head in 1993, lead singer/guitarist Adam Franklin was spiking the mix with a liberal dose of psychedelic color. The result: the closest thing to a true classic rock band that the Shoegazer era ever produced.

Ejector Seat Reservation should have been Swervedriver's breakout record. If fulfills every ounce of promise from the first two albums with a batch of incredibly strong, catchy, epic rock songs. Franklin's lyrics cover universal topics like love, suicide, self-delusion, and the meaning of life, and the music touches on familiar influences (The Beatles, T. Rex, and Hendrix among others) while still retaining its distinctive, idiosynchratic heart and soul. In short, Swervedriver created an immortal record easily worthy of inclusion alongside Nirvana's Nevermind and U2's Achtung Baby as one of the great rock albums of the nineties. It shoulda been the soundtrack of a generation. Problem was, no one heard it.

Having exhausted their promotional budget on STD tests and booze for Oasis, Creation Records sloughed Ejector Seat Reservation into English stores with nothing more than a couple of half-page ads in some music periodicals. A week later Creation dropped the band entirely, and their finest record never even made it to the States.

Oasis, of course, continued on to success as everyone's favorite Cartoon Version of a Great British Rock Band. The nice, low-key guys in Swervedriver, meanwhile, slogged through more legal hassles to put out one more great record, 1998's 99th Dream, before quietly folding in 1999.

Listening to Ejector Seat Reservation and Oasis' contemporaneous --ouch, that's an ungainly music-nerd word--(What's the Story) Morning Glory today, I'm overcome with the feeling that I'm in some sort of Bizarro World where something somewhere went horribly awry. Somewhere in a universe of aesthetic justice, Swervedriver got the chance to fill arenas, while Noel and Liam Gallagher ended up working in the produce section at Marks and Spencer. But alas, I do not live in that universe.

Fortunately, I do live in a universe where Swervedriver's principal architect--singer/songwriter/guitarist Adam Franklin--is still carrying on. Since 2000, he's gracefully married his classicist's songwriting pen with gently cinematic electronics on his side project Toshack Highway, and in June, Franklin released an excellent solo effort that effectively bridges the gap between his ambient Toshack work and the old Swervedriver rattle and hum. It's called Bolts of Melody, and it resolutely refuses to leave my car stereo after three weeks of constant rotation.

Bolts of Melody confirms the erstwhile Swervedriver frontman's muse, with Swerve-worthy rockers like "Seize the Day" and "Shining Somewhere" resting cozily between some utterly beautiful acoustic ballads (his voice has matured into a surprisingly affecting croon). The album's relaxed, warmly psychedelic vibe makes for great trip music during these heady summer days, and it's looser and more heartfelt than anything Franklin's former labelmates Oasis have ever released. The Gallagher brothers may have gotten the arenas and supermodel girlfriends, it seems, but Adam Franklin got the dignity.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

I Been Tagged: Eight Things About Me

A friend of mine 'tagged' me with an Electronic Chain Letter Exhortation to relate eight things about myself, and then pass this mofo along to eight more Bloggers. Screw the eight bloggers part: the only Bloggers I know well enough to inflict this crap number fewer than eight.

But I'm a good prole and will bend to the whims of peer pressure like any arrested adolescent worth his salt. Besides, I know that if I don't respond at all then The Chain Letter Curse is visited 'pon me. Plus there's a Scooby Doo reference here, which ties in (however tenuously) to the Pop Culture leanings of this Blog.

So here goes. Apologies to my fellow Bloggers/Webmasters/Friends, but tag...You're IT!!

(More Than) Eight Things about Me--For I, too am a contrarian, Kipling West...

1) I'm pretty disorganized, except for how I eat dinner. Side dish, vegetable, main course. Consumed in the most regimented pattern possible. Don't ask me how this started.

2) Been with the same girl since I graduated high school. And if you ask me how long that's been, I'll gladly tell you...before I kill you.

3) I must eat with a small spoon. Big spoons are for sissies who don't eat normal.

4) Was an altar boy from ages 11 to 12.

5) I was in the Cub Scouts for about six months before I got tired of it (circa age 10). During that time, I won the Cub Scout Halloween Costume contest by dressing in very loud, obnoxious drag. Divine would've blushed and chided my tastelessness. Thanks, Mom.

6) My first girlfriend was in the second grade. Then there was a long, long dry spell. Again, if you ask me how long, in person, I'll gladly tell you before I kill you.

7) My final project for one of my college theater classes was a one-act play called Scooby on a Hot Tin Roof. It was sort of like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, but with trailer trash, cartoon characters and a chainsaw.

8) Had a major lisp until speech therapy beat it out of me in the fourth grade.

9) I've never broken a bone in my life.

10) I'm the only southpaw in an immediate family of righties, and the only Aries in an immediate family of Tauruses (Taurii?).

OK...that didn't hurt too bad.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Heiress: Dysfunctionality in Period Finery

Think old black and white movies can't speak cold hard truths that still register today? Then take a look at The Heiress, director William Wyler's 1949 tragic costume drama (out recently on DVD). Beneath its genteel nineteenth-century surface beats the most bracingly caustic--and brutally honest--of hearts.

The story proper follows the path of Catherine Sloper (Olivia DeHavilland), a plain and unexceptional young woman whose father Austin (Ralph Richardson) happens to be a wealthy physician. One night Catherine is pulled away from her routine of needlepoint and isolation to attend a lavish society party, and the drab heiress makes the acquaintance of dashing ne'er do well Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift). Soon Morris is courting her fervently, a pursuit that inspires suspicion in her father even as it brings Catherine out of her shell.

If all of this sounds like the preamble to a typical period weeper, rest assured that it ain't. Wyler--one of the studio era's least-showy directors and also one of its best with actors--eschews over-the-top dramatics until the end, and wisely keeps things honed in sharply on the characterizations.

The ensemble responds with uniformly excellent work. DeHavilland received an Oscar for her performance here, and she's certainly good, but the real revelations surface within the supporting cast. Richardson always played stalwart gentlemen gracefully, and it's a revelation to see him really craft a sympathetic character from a potentially thankless and unlikeable role. The emotional aloofness and regret that subsume his genuine love for his daughter feel positively contemporary. Clift's vulnerability, meanwhile, imbues Townsend with genuine sweetness, and makes the character's intentions that much harder to read. Miriam Hopkins, endearing and nuanced as Catherine's well-intentioned aunt, rounds the cast out nicely.

Great as the actors are, though, it's the ending that floored me (and will likely do so to many modern viewers). It comes without a hint of the romanticized self-sacrifice or inspirational musical accompaniment that Hollywood movies normally use to obscure a downbeat climax. I won't drop any spoilers, but the conclusion here--that sometimes, no amount of love or penance can heal the emotional agonies loved ones can wreak upon one another--comes with quiet inevitability. It's a sobering--but refreshingly candid--finale, one that'd likely stand a snowball's chance in hell of getting greenlit by a major studio today.