Swell are one of those bands it’s very difficult to categorise, partly because they keep reinventing themselves. Originally out of San Francisco at the end of the 80s, they’ve been variously described as ‘mood-setting experimentalists’, ‘urban folk’, ‘quirky and on the fringes of rock’ and melodic mid-tempo cyber-indie seduction’.
Everybody Wants To Know is the sixth studio album and features 12 songs by core member David Freel. Actually he’s the only core member involved, as he seems to have shed former bandmates Sean Kirkpatrick and Monte Vallier, leaving Freel to provide ‘guitars, keyboards, vocals and other crap’, according to the sleeve notes, with assistance only from Rey Washam (drums) on some tracks. All credit to Freel that this richly textured and varied album sounds like a much bigger band.
Freel has a husky laid-back voice that has been likened to Lou Reed. Maybe he likes the comparison, because the first track ‘This story’ owes a huge debt to Reed’s great song ‘Vicious’, even seeming to parody some of the lyrics – ‘you’re so delicious/and so malicious…’ The sound is also very Velvet Underground, with overtones of Nirvana, and none the worse for that. ‘Someday always comes’, one of the five or so tracks taken from an earlier EP (including the title track ‘Feed’), has a much sparer acoustic feel while the crashing piano intro of ‘A velvet sun’ leads into hypnotic keyboards and jangling guitars, overlaid with Freel’s impenetrable but always interesting lyrics.
Like Poverty is the most familiar sound for past devotees while ‘Inside a bomb’ is the most downbeat of the tracks, with a spooky far-off foghorn backing. ‘I don’t think so’ is a cheerful little instrumental that totally changes the mood, and leads into the upbeat ‘East n west’. The title track is a good example of another Swell descriptor – ‘low-key rocking hypnosis’ – featuring Freel’s turbulent guitar. ‘Call me’ and ‘Try me’ are like a pair of non-identical twins – the same but different, simple songs with insistent rhythms and a hint of trance.
Feed gives us seductive vocals and what sounds like some serious experimentation in the background – the only track where some other band members might have helped to pull it together, perhaps? Finally ‘Why not?’, with a lovely little drum and synth intro and… but that’s it, at one minute three seconds. Maybe it’s a teaser for the next album? In the meantime this one is well worth checking out.