Swell – Whenever You’re Ready

Swell
Whenever You’re Ready

Swell’s continued existence is an endearing testament to the indestructible stubbornness of American’s alt-rock underground. Having been active since 1989, the group (headed-up by singer/guitarist David Freel) has survived a seemingly mandatory (though always ill-advised) stint on a major label, marched on despite multiple band member desertions, and cruised past the road sign marked “Critical/Commercial Indifference” without dropping so much as an eyelash. And just when Swell seemed to have ran a full-course with 2001’s somewhat lukewarm Everybody Wants to Know (essentially a self-recorded solo record from Freel), along comes the nonchalantly named Whenever You’re Ready (which reunites Freel with co-founding drummer Sean Kirkpatrick), a confident comeback from a band that has slipped-off every music industry radar imaginable.
Whilst we shouldn’t get too excited – this is after all Swell’s seventh album with more of the same stylistic non-progression – the re-admittance of Kirkpatrick to the fold certainly seems to have reinvigorated Swell’s existence (with his utterly gorgeous sleeve paintings if nothing else). So expect plenty of the same Swellian fuzzy college-rock with vaguely psychedelic-country overtones, but shot through with a newer vitality that offsets Freel and Kirkpatrick’s collective years in the trade. The near-opening “Next To Nothing” is particulary bracing with its amalgam of choppy guitars / drums, female backing vocals, and soaring synth lines. “War Comes Down” follows suit with an earthy hard-folk edge (not unlike sometime labelmates Buffalo Tom). The West Coast pop glide of “Convince Us” does little to hide an affection for 70s rock with its messy guitar twists and churns, an amiable approach that’s followed-up on the even more unfashionable “So Easy, So Cool.” Things slide into a more mellow gear on “In the Morning” with Freel’s vocals becoming as drowsy as a sedated coma patient and then slip into a more plaintive pace on the country ballad of “Everyday Comes Everynight.” But it’s the closing “California, Arizona,” with its hard-strummed acoustic guitars, hook-heavy harmonies, operatic vocal samples, and valedictory violin sweeps, that confirms Whenever You’re Ready as the best Swell album since 1997’s Too Many Days Without Thinking.
On the mild reservations side, it has to be remembered that this is still a fairly standard Swell album (at least sonically speaking), so if you own more than two previous releases then it’s hard to claim that this an essential extra purchase unless you’re one of those elusive die-hard fans whose salivating at the onset of the band’s enhanced reissues campaign via Badman Recordings. Furthermore, whilst it’s good to hear Freel and Kirkpatrick having such good fun as friends reunited, a little bit of self-editing or B-side subcontracting would not have gone amiss for at least five of the 15 tracks here, because at 66 minutes Whenever You’re Ready is a tad too long.
Reading the sleeve-notes (“This is our 7th record, thanks for memories”) and the lyric sheet (“Racing down the road to god knows where” from “California, Arizona”) too intently might suggest that this is the last Swell album. If that turns out to be the case then at least Whenever You’re Ready is far from being the disgraceful drive into the stoner-rock sunset that many of Swell’s detractors might have predicted. A Swell ride indeed.