Release Date: Apr 7, 2009
Record label: Secretly Canadian
Genre(s): Indie, Rock, Pop
Genre-hopping Minnesota-based pop auteur Richard Swift's The Atlantic Ocean is more of an "official" follow-up to 2007's Dressed Up for the Letdown than the double shot of Music from the Films of R/Swift (under the pseudonym Instruments of Science and Technology) and the cathartic but nearly unlistenable Richard Swift as Onasis. Where the latter two releases felt like "Hail Marys" tossed into the musical ether, Ocean serves as a return to the kind of sharp-tongued, Beatlesque retro-pop that fueled 2005's Novelist/Walking Without Effort and the aforementioned Letdown. This time around it's the late Harry Nilsson who casts the largest shadow, especially on the hipster-slamming title track, which sets the tone for a string of "Martha My Dear"-meets-"Me and My Arrow" backbeats, comforting, timeless melodies, and lyrics that juggle biting satire and whimsy with startling acumen.
I suppose I can see what Jeff Tweedy saw in Richard Swift when he invited Swift to tour with Wilco in support of their 2007 album, Sky Blue Sky. There’s potential here and catchy hooks abound. But Swift’s latest album, The Atlantic Ocean, sounds tirelessly like someone who can see the light but can’t reach it, dancing around it fervently but never getting any closer to the finish line.
A former keyboard player in the vaguely Catherine Wheel-ish contemporary Christian group Starflyer 59, Richard Swift struck out on his own at the turn of the decade. His first two records, Walking Without Effort and The Novelist, came out on as a double album in 2005 on Secretly Canadian, and he's been putting out music in dribs and drabs ever since then. All of it has been perfectly competent but a little dull, suggesting an MOR-indie mind-meld of Ron Sexsmith, Michael Penn, and Andrew Bird.
Richard Swift is a time traveler. Most musicians’ studios are bursting at the seams with vintage instruments, a dizzying array of effects pedals and processors, and a preponderance of recording equipment—not to mention some herbal digestifs for inspiration. Swift’s studio, on the other hand, is relatively sparse. It requires no more space than a small (air-conditioned) storage unit or, more likely, your parents’ basement, because it houses only a single, singular device: a purple and gold, egg-shaped pod retrofitted with a beat-up La-Z-Boy recliner just big enough to fit Swift himself.
The joy of Richard Swift isn't necessarily his uncanny knack for combining joyful harmonies with smartass, often-cynical lyrics. It's not his warble or his multilayered all-American songs. It's just that the man knows no limits. Over four albums, the Oregonian's skipped through Tin Pan Alley, melancholic chants, druggy garage rock, and now crystalline, piano-driven pop run through an analog prism of doo-wop.
Contrary to what the breezy, upbeat nature of his music might suggest, Richard Swift plays a dangerous game: as a more-or-less self-contained one man band, he constantly risks falling victim to the sterility and unintentional chilliness of bedroom-bred pop, while his knack for writing catchy tunes that go down nice and easy threatens to devolve into pleasant superficiality. These dual pitfalls hover over The Atlantic Ocean, and more often than not, prevent the album from being the blissful DIY pop masterpiece it so clearly aspires to be. The Atlantic Ocean’s shortcomings are not, however, immediately apparent, and it’s easy to be dazzled by Swift’s obvious talents.