October 10, 2005

Richard Swift "The Richard Swift Collection, Volume 1: The Novelist/Walking Without Effort"

For the past year, some friends of mine have talked endlessly of the brilliance of Richard Swift. These people toured California with him, and ever since that mini-tour, they've sung his praises, always saying that he's one of today's top songwriting talents. An enthusiastic boast, to be sure--but it's also one that definitely piques curiosity. Of course, there's been one major obstacle in finding out whether or not this is so--availability. How can you prove your genius if no one can hear your music? The Richard Swift Collection, Volume One is a quick introduction for those of you (and by 'those,' I mean 99.9%) who might have missed him the first time around. The two-disc set collects his two previous efforts, Walking Without Effort and The Novelist. Though both records are somewhat brief, the decision was made to issue them individually, because they are two distinctively different records.

Walking Without Effort is a rather straightforward affair. Though not as distinctive or as unique as The Novelist, it is also a fine collection of songs. This album shows Swift's skills are indebted to musicians like Elton John and Randy Newman--clever and heartfelt, with a nice balance between lyrical style and musical accompaniment, simple songs with the barest of essentials. The songs are mellow, somewhat sad, and are highlighted by Swift's one-too-many-beers-and-cigarettes-last-night voice. Songs like "Half Lit" and "As I Go" are accentuated by excellent horn sections, but the arrangements never overwhelm the songwriting. So subtle are these arrangements that to listen to Walking Without Effort on headphones is a quietly joyous affair, because the album gains a new perspective from such a close listening experience. At times, though, on "Alone," "Beneath," and "Not Wasting Time," one feels that Swift is wanting to expand his music outward, into new directions, yet he's not quite sure what he wants to do next.

That experimentation would be found on his follow-up record, The Novelist. It's a brief affair, with eight songs in eighteen minutes, but don't let the record's brevity fool you. Swift is a masterful musician, and he is quite adept at utilizing every second of that brief amout of time, and The Novelist is a full-bodied collection that feels much bigger and much longer than it really is. An experiment of sorts, these songs are all buit around song structures and instrumental arrangements of the 1920s and 30s. It's an interesting concept, and it's quite rewarding. But it's not that he's making "retro" music--he's simply applying compositional ideas and arrangements from the past to more contemporary songwriting. "Lonely Night" has a jazz accompaniment, complete with ragtime piano, trumpet and gorgeous harmonies. Then there's the simply wonderful ukelele on "Sadsong Street." But it's not all a recreation of the past; "Lady Day" blends a drum machine with gorgeous Cole Porter-style songwriting,

The Richard Swift Collection, Volume 1: The Novelist/Walking Without Effort is an excellent introduction to the music of Richard Swift. Secretly Canadian has once again performed a great service by pulling him from painful obscurity and introducing him to the world at large. If these records constitute Swift making music on his own for a limited audience, the notion of what he'll do now that he has an attentive audience is quite appealing. A true talent, this Swift.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.richardswift.us
Label Website: http://www.secretlycanadian.com

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