I’d like to believe that Mr. Richard Swift is a classy guy who smokes cigars, drives an old Mercedes Benz, and dines at a ritzy club with other gents of the same musical socialite calibre. At the flick of a wrist, Mr. Swift orders very dry martinis from the bar, but not condescendingly as such men are wont to do. He’s universally regarded as a friendly patron by the employees, knows when he’s had too much to drink, and tips generously as he asks the new waiter about his college plans. At one point, critics called him a “Gershwin in one,” a comment that flattered, but he assured friends that he neither had the lyrical beauty of Ira nor the stunning composition of George. Slowly he’d pen the next tune at his Steinway smiling at the Gershwin comparison and wondering how he could knock the kids off their feet.
Of course, I have no idea if Richard Swift enjoys cigars. He probably drives a Toyota and indulges in a hamburger spread thick with mayonnaise because that’s how Californians like them. From what I’ve been told, he plays ping-pong with other like-minded musicians, and likely wins a couple drinks for later in the week. The liner notes — designed like the jazz albums from the ’50s — writes on this very topic: Richard Swift as the wily artist wanting you to think he’s a vaudeville act singing his way out of a phonograph. Lance Alton Troxel catches on to Swift’s clever trick that questions his reality, so I won’t regurgitate.
The Richard Swift Collection Volume One collects his first two EPs, Walking Without Effort and The Novelist, like one of those twofers you’d buy for The Beatles or The Beach Boys, except the record company hasn’t removed any “unnecessary” tracks and severely altered the production by fitting more songs on a side of vinyl. Both EPs were originally self-released with the latter pressed a second time for Velvet Blue Music, yet another fine example of Jeff Cloud’s excellent taste. Going on four 7″ releases for VBM, Swift will likely soon be up for a Volume Two prolific as he is.
As for the consistency of his prolificacy, I’ve rarely heard such an amount of great material in such a short time. John Darnielle under his Mountain Goats moniker comes to mind as one who’s never ceased to amaze me with his output, but I have to realize that Swift (at least under this name) is only four years into his solo career taking time out to play and record with Starflyer 59 for Old and make an instrumental Eno-inspired electronic album as Instruments Of Science And Technology.
That said, Walking Without Effort, as his “Richard Swift” debut (a previous nom de plume being Dicky Ochoa), is a remarkable thirty minutes of summer-romance-under-stringed-white-lights album. It radiates warmth with lyrics comforting and life-affirming delivered by a voice that knows its limits in the music it makes. He left his vocal showboating for Old and it added a striking element to Jason Martin’s otherwise moody demeanor, but here he sings as if he’s speaking to a lost lover over a late night phone call in a Manhattan apartment, not pleading, but calmly reaching a dramatic climax without shouting. He recalls a sincerely heartbroken Burt Bacharach working more with an acoustic guitar than a piano, yet still with light horn arrangements (by Frank Lenz). Again, referring to Troxel’s liner notes, this is where Swift wants us to believe some mystique, and perhaps not take him so seriously. Despite his grin, both Swift and his audience enjoy the conscious effort to create music essentially out of its time period.
The case in point here lies mostly in his whimsical, light, and carefree delivery without the exaggerated romanticism. Led by an acoustic guitar and horns, “As I Go” is a Leonard Cohen at his happiest and Swift acknowledging his need for God’s unconditional love: “Hallelu, I need to sing with all I have/Hallelu, I need to sing/If I falter, if I fade, you will hold me still so close/If I need you, my Good Father, to be with me as I go/As I go.” The theme of trying to overcome inept humanity and realizing God as our one constant is prevalent throughout. “Losing Sleep,” with its delightful nod to Brian Wilson’s bouncing bass line, weighs with the same “heavy heart” mentioned struggling to “turn the sky upside down.”
The Novelist, thus far, is Swift’s master work, a conceptual album about a writer in New York. This is where he really twists the reality he presents to the listener. For a sound so “old” as though recorded in the ’20s, it’s decidedly “modern” in the electronic flourishes and drumbeats for a sound that becomes un-placeably unique. And “unique” is not an adjective I use lightly. In fact, I hate using it, but Swift’s approach to the production and the songwriting of The Novelist is as compelling as it is confounding. Even two years after owning the Velvet Blue Music version, I find more reasons to wonder how Swift channeled the bittersweetness of Randy Newman into vaudevillian songs with occasional lush orchestral flourishes not unlike David Rose. His words turn delightful lyrical tricks (“Trying so hard to craft a rhyme with nickels and dimes”) and he’s found a wonderful place for his heart-warming falsetto as he sings, “I am New York/Tired and weak/Tried to write a book each time I sleep” (“The Novelist”).
This all brings me to the finale, the sad cabaret of “Looking Back, I Should Have Been Home More.” The bouncing Brian Wilson bass line comes back, but Swift’s at a slow, slightly-out-of-tune ragtime piano looking back at the smoke-filled room full of bowler hats and singing with a passion that rivals a Broadway musical’s sombre conclusion. The music swells after a carefully placed bridge and the conductor cues the strings to a brilliant forte. It’s a magnificent moment resolved with the curtain closing slowly from the proscenium. And at just below twenty minutes, we’re clamoring for the encore.
Written by Lars Gotrich.