Big Ole Bag O...
Ray Davies wasn't lying. During his keynote address at the annual South By Southwest festival, Davies encouraged attendees to see as many bands as they could. The Kinks frontman claimed that he would do the same. It sounded like vacuous lip service - an empty promise given by a 56-year-old geezer/genius who wanted to seem hip to the 7,000 music bizzers who flock to Austin each March in order to A) talk about bands; B) stand in line at restaurants while yelling on cell phones; C) score as much free booze as humanly possible; and D) try not to drown in a sea of music industry hype.
Yet, there Davies was, wedged into the tiny Continental Club along with enough people to make a fire marshal weep. The occasion? A showcase set by Swag, one of the most-talked about bands at the conference. Given Swag's penchant for layered, ultra-melodic, '60s-style power pop, the head Kinkster's presence was understandable.
Swag's debut Catch-All (Yep Roc) will find favor with devotees who worship at The Beatles/Beach Boys altar, as well those who enjoy the works of less-important pop-rock saints such as The Babys, Beau Brummels, and The Box Tops. The lyrics on Catch-all don't contain any analyses of World Trade Organization policies or third-world debt relief. Instead, you get lots of bouncy tunes about girls 'n' stuff. In the grand tradition of The Beatles' "Michelle" and The Monkees' "Valleri", there are three tracks in which the female subject provides the song title: "Louise", "Trixie", and a Danish waitress in London named "Lone".
The members of Nashville-based Swag carry some pretty darn impressive resumes. Robert Reynolds (vocals, guitar) is the bassist for eclectic country-pop band The Mavericks. Ken Coomer was, until recently, the drummer for Wilco. Keyboardist Jerry Dale McFadden has played with BR5-49, The Mavericks, and most recently, Sixpence None The Richer. Singer/guitarist Doug Powell has released two solo albums and worked with Todd Rundgren. Finally, Tom Petersson (bass) holds down a day job with a successful little quartet from Rockford called Cheap Trick.
The morning after the Continental Club show, McFadden, Powell, and Reynolds sat in the sunshine outside the Austin Convention Center and discussed the band's origin. In October 1994, Cheap Trick and The Mavericks were two of the numerous acts that performed at a pay-per-view tribute to Elvis, filmed at the Pyramid in Memphis. "That was when I first met Rick Nielsen", McFadden recalls, "and for some reason he and I really hit it off. At the after-show party, I remember we were drinking and yukkin' it up and having a blast. We exchanged phone numbers and I thought, 'I'll never hear from that guy again.'"
A week after the Elvis tribute, Nielsen phoned McFadden and the two musicians kept in touch over the subsequent months. When Petersson moved to Nashville a few years ago, Nielsen encouraged his bandmate to contact McFadden. By sheer coincidence, Petersson moved into the same apartment complex as McFadden, and they became fast friends.
McFadden and Reynolds, who had often composed pop tunes on The Mavericks' tour bus, soon found themselves in a situation that would make a novice songwriter freeze up or simply faint: Reynolds arranged a songwriting session with McFadden, Petersson, and Cheap Trick lead singer Robin Zander, who flew to Nashville specifically for the meeting.
With obvious glee, Reynolds says, "The four of us sat around with little tape recorders and wrote about five bits and pieces. I was learning - at that moment, trial by fire - how those guys work. You don't belabor it. You write some little nuggets, and then let them sit and keep moving on. They didn't try to write the whole song."
McFadden: "We were coming at it with the Nashville kind of [method], where you sit down and you write an entire song and you finish it that day."
Reynolds: "This wasn't really Swag stuff, but it was part of what would lead to Swag. Two of the bits of songs that we wrote that day turned into actual finished songs on Cheap Trick's last studio album [the 1997 Red Ant release Cheap Trick]."
Although Swag had done some things in the studio, the band's first live gig was in October 1997. The lineup for that show was the same that appears on Catch-All. The cover photograph for Swag's debut depicts a junk drawer. Powell explains that "it was Robert's idea, that we could have a drawer full of stuff, a catch-all drawer representing the catch-all nature of all the styles on the album, how it got recorded, and how it got written."
The objects shown on the cover reflect the band members' aesthetic sensibilities. In addition to the predictable things, such as a drumstick, guitar pick, and Vox foot pedal, there are some unusual items, like Ken Coomer's glasses, a clown Pez dispenser, a flamingo-shaped pin cushion, and the picture sleeve to Cheap Trick's "Dream Police" single. Pointing to a gold band nestled alongside an Elvis Costello concert ticket stub, Reynolds says, "I threw in my wedding ring. I'd just gone through a divorce, so I figured that belonged in there."
Reynolds' ex-wife, country superstar Trisha Yearwood, also appears on the album. Sort of. Between tracks five and six on the disc, the band inserted an unedited answering machine message that Yearwood left for Reynolds, asking him to call her. Reynolds, who remains extremely close with Yearwood, says "that message was from when we were still married. It was during a very difficult year. It was 1998, and she was traveling like crazy, and the phone was our only link to a marriage. There is something oddly poignant about that little message because unfortunately, we lived by the phone, and getting a phone call was what you hung on, what you waited for."
One of the most haunting melodies on the disc is "Near Perfect Smile", a song inspired by Reynolds' feelings about Yearwood. The song was co-written with McFadden and Powell, who recall that the "song was a total accident. Brad Jones [who produced Catch-All] was in the next room mixing, and we were just sitting there waiting on him. Robert started noodling around, and then, an hour later, we had a song. We recorded it the next day, and that was it."
Fans hungry for more Swag can find contributions from the band on a couple of upcoming tribute discs - one that honors Jeff Lynne, and another that salutes The Who Sell Out. For the time being, Swag looks, acts, and smells like a full-time band. With The Mavericks on an indefinite hiatus, Reynolds can do as he pleases. Sixpence None The Richer is mired in major-label distribution issues for its new album, so McFadden also has some flexibility. Coomer and Powell are free agents.
Petersson enjoys sitting in with the band, but his schedule isn't as open as those of the other members. While Swag was performing in Austin, Petersson couldn't join them because Cheap Trick was en route to Japan to tour behind the band's new double-live album Silver. Cheap Trick in Japan? How 'bout Swag's Next?
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