Philadelphia City Paper
Swag! You’re It!
Skilled music-makers do retro-pop right.
Catch-All (Yep Roc), the debut album from the band Swag, contains such Power-Pop Primer selections as ‘Please Don’t Tell’, which melds the Kinks’ ‘Set Me Free’ riff to a trashy Nuggets organ groove; ’Trixie’ a soft-shoe love song right out of the Paul McCartney School of Whimsy; and ‘Eight’, a vocal showcase for the drummer that comes in as the quintessential mid-album Ringo moment. Elsewhere, there are the obligatory nods to the Byrds, the Beach Boys et al.
It sounds like the blueprint for a million other pop poseur projects: Band forms to show off record collections, vintage guitars and horn-rimmed glasses. But that’s all they’ve got. Swag is different. Catch-All is a vital, fiendishly catchy piece of work. Any of the album’s songs can effortlessly lodge themselves in your brain at any time. And it’s because of what they sound like, not what else they sound like.
The band’s success is also due to its lineup: Mavericks guitarist Robert Reynolds, keyboardist Jerry Dale McFadden of Sixpence None the Richer, Cheap Trick bassist Tom Petersson, solo singer-guitarist Doug Powell and former Wilco drummer Ken Coomer. Swag is something of a busman’s holiday, and that lends the project a relaxed air; here the veteran musicians can get away with the more than occasional pilfered riff. Plus, their concept of "riffs worth pilfering" is broad enough to include Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ and the Sesame Street theme.
But suggest to the band members that they’ve overcome the lack of originality that’s crippled so many other would-be pop auteurs, and they might not agree. Talking from his Music City day job as a multimedia designer, Powell says candidly, "I do see it as derivative. There was never any thought given to ‘how can we make this less Zombies-ish’, or something like that.
"I know some of those songs were born out of Jerry Dale and Robert playing each other some of their favorite records on the bus", he continues, "and [saying] ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to try to write a song that sounded like it belonged on that record?’ Without trying to rip off anything on there, just capture all the same stuff that made that record so attractive."
The idea for Swag was hatched by Reynolds and McFadden on a Mavericks tour around 1997-’98, when the latter was the country band’s touring keyboardist. On the phone from Nashville, McFadden says, "I think we made a little more of a conscious effort to write those kinds of songs. Our love for vintage pop music was partially because we were playing Mavericks music for a living, and that was our little getaway."
Once they returned to their home base of Nashville, Reynolds and McFadden began working with a variety of musicians on the project, eventually settling on Coomer ("one of my favorite drummers, period", says McFadden), Petersson and Powell.
Catch-All’s resolutely rocking sound also helps make it distinct. Credit goes to producer Brad Jones for never forgetting the mighty Petersson/Coomer rhythm section. Contrasting with the up-front rock mix are impossibly thick, lush vocal harmonies that create counter-melodies, rather than just follow the lead line. McFadden points to Powell and Jones’ skill in this respect. Powell says, "It’s very intuitive for [Jones]. And it’s pretty intuitive for me too. I’m a really, really big vocal guy. I like tons of ’em, and I like them doing all sorts of things. I’m so highly influenced by Utopia and their use of background vocals, and Queen. Everything I grew up with has these just massive vocal parts."
Unfortunately, for this Swag mini-tour, Petersson is busy with Cheap Trick. His replacement will be Warren Pash, who, among other credits, co-wrote Hall and Oates’ ‘Private Eyes’. "You know, you’d think that guy would have his priorities straight", Powell laughs about Petersson before allowing that the fluctuating lineup is "just the nature of Swag."
Philadelphia City Paper
April 19–26, 2001
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