Greetings from Redneck, New Jersey... For the Swales' Rob Carr, big city angst's got nothing on good, old-fashioned small-town misery.
"The regular guy just tugs at my heartstrings," says Carr. "If there's any condescension to [my songs], then I owe everyone a big apology, because that's not what I'm trying to do at all."
As the Hoboken, New Jersey band's singer/songwriter, Carr exhibits an uncanny balance of sympathy and irony that lends indelible images to the roots-pop of the Swales' latest, What's His Name. Carr sings of teenage romance without excluding its often treacherous sexuality; of same-old, same-old Friday night binges at local watering holes; and of the odd expressions of affection and abuse that flow between the generations. On a catchy bed of guitar, bass, drums and organ, his unaffected vocals -- part Lou Reed, part Mark Knopfler -- help romance everyday themes into telling portraits of rural suburbia.
Amidst all the juicy details, Carr manages to slip in the occasional clever love song. On one standout, the country-flavored jig, "Tanqueray Tango," two alcoholics meet at detox and continue their tryst naked in an aboveground pool that has a bottle of gin chilling at its bottom, only to wake up the next day face down and oblivious to the previous night's events. To ram home his vivid impressions of white-trash Americana, Carr adorned the CD cover with a photo of a pregnant teenager sitting on her porch in front of an American flag. With the "What's His Name" title underneath, it creates a powerful picture, one both funny and harrowing.
"It's just a very strong image," says Carr. "She was 19, actually. I saw her in a grocery store and said, 'That is it.' It turns out she lived on my street. She had the baby very soon after that and moved back to Oklahoma with her husband -- where they're originally from. I don't even think she's seen the cover."
Although he's a city-dweller now, Carr has, for the most part, lived the blue-collar life he sings about. "I'm not an un-regular guy myself," he says. Along with bandmates Mike Santoro (bass), Ken Tondre (drums) and Mike Daly (guitar), Carr helped build an addition to a Hoboken studio in exchange for the recording time needed to complete What's His Name. At that point, the Swales had depleted their advance from Bar/None, the label that signed them in 1991, released their debut, Pleasureland, in 1992, and waited patiently for its follow-up, which was a while in coming. After a flurry of personnel changes (former bassist Larry Bonforte quit to become a carpenter, old drummer Eric Harris left to join Chocolate USA and Rich Weiner laid down his guitar one day in the middle of recording) and months of obsessing in the studio, What's His Name finally saw the light of day last year.
Carr, 33, didn't bother putting pen to paper until he was 27 and felt he had sampled a bit of what life had to offer. "My attempt at life is to run the gamut. I've been in the service; I've been to college; I've worked on a farm; I worked for IBM," he says. "I don't feel like I'm out of my element when I write about this stuff."
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The Swales will be in Houston March 20 for a show at the Urban Art Bar. Unlike many bands coming through town in the next week, the stop is not South by Southwest related. Inexplicably, the band didn't make the cut this year. The people at SXSW headquarters had to have wax in their ears to miss What's His Name, one of 1995's finest releases.
Geared up for SXSWE Recommended Friday viewing for civic-minded Houstonians at this year's South by Southwest conference: local standouts the Jinkies and Clouded (formerly Clover) will be part of a mostly Texas lineup at The Icon, a bill that also includes Dallas buzz bands Hagfish and Doosu. Worth a wade through Saturday's inebriated masses are showcase slots from the recently signed Sisters Morales at Top of the Marc and the Suspects, by far Houston's tightest ska ensemble, at the Back Room.
Thursday's Watermelon Records showcase at Maggie Mae's West will include a set from Houston singer/songwriter Eric Taylor. And Sunday, Texas Johnny Brown and the Quality Blues Band will cap off the weekend with a performance at Antone's.
Etc.... Classical station KUHF/88.7 FM has joined with Planet Music on Westheimer to offer a series of in-store performances and demonstrations. Saturday afternoon, Houston Symphony trumpeter Robert Walp will take to his horn -- as well as a conch shell and beer hose -- in his presentation on the history and development of the trumpet; Wednesday night will feature a discussion/performance with Hua Yang, Jia Li and Rong "Cindy" Tan focusing on Chinese vocal and instrumental music. Meanwhile, this year's Party on the Plaza series begins Thursday with a wince rather than a swagger. Organizers chose Survivor to headline the show after negotiations for Eddie Money fell through. Those looking forward to Money's beefy catalog of hits will have to settle instead for a few-hit wonder. Locals Global Village open the show. Garden in the Heights has the corner on extended St. Patrick's Day blowouts this year. The venue will feature Hadden Sayers, Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys, Godfrey's Rangers, Scottish Rogues and a handful of other entertainers for its Thursday through Sunday festival. KTRU/91.7 FM kicks off its Jazz Master Series Thursday at Rice University Coffeehouse with composer/arranger/pianist Dave Burrell, who -- between tours with saxophonist David Murray and tuba player Bob Stewart -- somehow found the time to compose a jazz opera with Swedish poet Monika Larsson. Burrell's trio features saxophonist Odean Pope, a longtime Max Roach associate. Also worth a gander Thursday: Egyptians leader Robyn Hitchcock slips into Rockefeller's for a solo show; Boston-based singer/songwriter Catie Curtis, whose debut Truth from Lies has been drawing rave reviews, comes to McGonigel's Mucky Duck; and Deep Phat features a thrash-punk triple-bill with REO Speeddealer, Hog and Like Hell. -- Hobart Rowland