Pop Life

Flannel File: Swervedriver's Raise and Mezcal Head

In my last Flannel File entry, I talked about March's big reissue of Pearl Jam's Ten. This time, I want to look at a "little" reissue set from January: Swervedriver's Raise and Mezcal Head.

Like Jawbox or Sloan, Swervedriver had a pretty low profile among suburban youth of the early '90s, despite having (at least theoretical) major-label backing. I was familiar with them in name only when they played in Austin last June, an state of affairs that the concert itself did nothing to rectify since I skipped it.

Happily, I later ended up with a copy of A.M., a record from Swervedriver frontman Adam Franklin's new project, Magnetic Morning. Bush-league band name notwithstanding, it ended up being one of my favorites of 2008; the first two Swervedriver records were reissued just a month or two later. No doubt the timing was more synergistic than serendipitous, but all the same I was excited to be able to get full copies of the records, from which I had previously heard only excerpts.

Raise was the band's first full-length, released in 1991. Mezcal Head followed in 1993, after a rotation in the band's rhythm section. Having been part of the same Creation Records roster (in the U.K.- they were represented by A&M in the states) as Ride, Slowdive, the Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine, Swervedriver is usually categorized as being a shoegaze band.

However, I think this label is a disservice to the band. It fits for Raise, but while that album has a few good songs, notably "Pile Up" and "Son of Mustang Ford," it tends to suffer from plodding rhythms and an underdeveloped sense of melody that reveals Franklin's lack of songwriting experience. Worse still, only two weeks after its release, MBV unveiled a work of genius entitled (perhaps you have heard of it) Loveless, changing the game for shoegaze bands and basically making the chunky, effects-driven sludge of Raise irrelevant.

Mezcal Head definitely holds up better, borrowing stomping riffs from Dinosaur Jr. in order to reconfigure the dreaminess and squalling noise of shoegaze into thunderous, driving rock. The crushing "Duel" exemplifies the cleverest thing about Mezcal Head, which is that it retains the primary influences of shoegaze - Dinosaur, Husker Du, Sonic Youth, the Cure - but uses them in the service of something primal and elemental. By way of comparison, Ride's Nowhere is just as much a rock album, but where it's jangly and romantic, like the Wedding Present viewed through a kaleidoscope, Mezcal Head has a relaxed brutality, like that of U.S. grunge and noisecore bands, that is almost sensuous in its feeling of abandon.

Another thing to note here is that Franklin's writing has improved greatly between the first and second albums, and his voice, though not spectacular, is now capable of providing the flow and continuity that turns a collection of riffs into a song. Mezcal Head, to my mind, is the place where you can first hear Franklin's compositional voice clearly for the first time, and it is a distinctive one that has remained constant over time; "MM Abduction," for example, could easily be a Magnetic Morning song. He has an urbane sensibility that seems paradoxical in combination with the music's muscularity, but which imparts a sense of polish that makes a song like "Girl on a Motorbike" sound like it would be at home on a film soundtrack.

Swervedriver's career trajectory is a classic case of the "chew 'em up and spit 'em out" mentality that predominated the '90s at major labels (Creation was sold to Sony in 1992). Creation, apparently enamored of new baby Oasis, "dropped [Swervedriver] one week after the UK release of 1995 album Ejector Seat Reservation and deleted the record from print," says Wikipedia, after which the band was signed and almost immediately dropped by Geffen.

Along with personnel problems after Raise, which nearly killed the band, it's tempting to blame the label problems for Swervedriver's failure to break out. But although Swervedriver can be accessible in the moment, these albums probably never could have broken through in a big way, simply due to their length and density. Raise has quite a bit of filler, and only one song that's less than four minutes; "Duel," the single from Mezcal Head and the closest thing the band ever had to a hit in the U.S., is more than 6 minutes long (as Allmusic points out, they apparently weren't the most exciting live act, either).

Like Hum, Swervedriver was a pretty great band with the misfortune to be just accessible enough to be popular in a style too self-indulgent by nature to be consistently profitable. It's this type of band that has been best-served by the reunion craze, happily enough.

Makes me wish I had seen that show.

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Daniel Mee