Bastards and Rarities 1989-1994
Badman Recording Co.
Woe betide the longtime Swell fan who spent years collecting all those obscure early B-sides, limited edition EPs and European imports. (I fall into that sad category. After an extended phone interview for Copper Press about two years back, I spent what seemed like hours haggling with frontman David Freel for a nicely priced package deal comprising this early material.) Now the Badman Recording Co., home to erstwhile Red House Painter Mark Kozelek, has assembled the lot and released them on one convenient CD bearing the familiar monochrome artwork that distinguished the San Francisco band’s output until Too Many Days Without Thinking arrived in 1997 after a three-year silence.
Compiled from The DeCoster’s, Liberation, Room to Think, Here It Is and Forget About Jesus EPs, as well as the Summer Songs 7-inch, these are ten excellent B-sides from the era described as the “David Freel, Sean Kirkpatrick, Monte Vallier days of Swell,” a time before conflicting agendas and personalities drove the various members into very fickle partnerships. Kirkpatrick’s clever, crisp drumming is at its most noteworthy on all these tracks, dressing up 4/4 time so that it seems like something altogether new — “This Is How It Starts” and the instrumental “Too Many Days Without Thinking” are just two specific examples. Freel’s sardonic outlook hasn’t yet matured into his present moody cynicism; as bassist, Vallier is as he always was to the group: essential to the shape and heft of the songs, but never conspicuous.
Both Swell completists and newcomers will find plenty of highlights here, not least among them “Get Higher,” the riff-heavy, soporific alternate version of “Get High” from the band’s eponymous debut LP, in addition to “Forget About Dean,” the remix of “Forget About Jesus,” which lifts Kirkpatrick’s father’s reading of the lyrics and works them in as the main vocals, and the exceedingly hard-to-find “Comfort 48.”
Yet Bastards and Rarities isn’t comprehensive. “Always One Thing” and “Give” from the Room to Think EP are disappointingly absent, particularly so when there’s space left for another forty minutes of music on this CD. And on B-side releases like this one, I always like to have a detailed set of liner notes or a brief retrospective explaining how the songs came into existence and why they weren’t included on the albums proper. All we get here is a blurb about the band’s old studio and listings for two websites, one of which is notoriously neglected.
A more forgivable oversight is the title, which is misleading because, in a way, everything Swell recorded in those days was bastardized and rare. It is only through the intervention of some spiteful genius muse that this trio would convene in the first place and then go on to endure setback after setback (e.g., severe label trouble, financial difficulties, feeble domestic acclaim) while creating such unique music, a type in which even the cast-offs are nothing short of first-rate, as this compilation proves in spades. And few could ask for a more enticing prelude to Whenever You’re Ready, the new full-length reuniting Freel and Kirkpatrick under the Swell moniker, due out on Beggars Banquet in the UK and US later this year.