Seth Nathan‘s Swimopens up with a fuzzed-out blast of ’90s indie-rock in “Four Corners,” building on the discography he’s created recently of fractured indie-rock fusions with various other genres. The rest of the album streamlines out some of the genre mash-ups, focusing on an updated Pavement/Guided by Voices sound. With the music streamlined, it leaves room for Nathan’s attention to turn toward lyrical concerns for most of Swim. “How did you still love me / when everything was wrong in my head?” opens up second track “Pieces of Jade.” The rest of the album could be subtitled Love in the Time of Mental Illness, as Nathan takes the listener on a tour of what love looks like in the midst of “everything was wrong in my head.”
Nathan is remarkably open and detailed about this period of his life, whether that’s the flute-laden psych-pop of “Diagonal” declaring a Mountain Goats-esque couple paralysis (“we’re stuck in a tangle / or a strangle / we can’t handle”), the loping “Sealed My Fate” trying to make sense of a relationship “crashing down,” or the country-esque “This Big Old House” unspooling a rebuilding narrative with an ominous ticking clock in the background. It’s a deeply personal album, but not in the claustrophobic way that many records can be when they try to go this route. The one exception is the title track, which closes the record with a brittle, intense solo acoustic performance that caps the story of the record in an inconclusive, loose-threads sort of way. If you’re into indie-rock albums that are genuinely trying to do things that you can’t do in a regular rock format (that was the goal once, no?), you’ll find a lot to love in Swim.
1. “New Survival” – The Medicine Hat. Taut, tightly-wound indie-rock verses open up into an expansive, melodic chorus. The whole thing is reminiscent of a female-fronted Bloc Party, if they were slightly less neurotic. They don’t make ’em like this very often. (editor’s note: this band changed its name to Ellevator after this post was published.)
2. “More” – Queue. A slinky, winding bass line and gently staccato percussion power this indie-rock tune that would make Wye Oak jealous.
3. “Four Corners” – Seth Nathan. Brash, noisy, immediate garage-y indie-rock that owes as much to Pavement as it does to The Vaccines. The attitude-filled vocal delivery is on point, and the whole thing comes off like a charm.
4. “You” – Wall Sun Sun. Two nylon-string acoustic guitars, two drummers, and nine-part harmonies compose the entire arrangement here. While comparisons to the Polyphonic Spree are sort of inevitable, they sound more like a ’50s girl-pop band fused to an acoustic version of Vampire Weekend. Which is to say: “whoa, this is the jam.”
5. “Birthday Blues” – Team Picture. If Frightened Rabbit got mixed up with a krautrock band, they might turn out a churning, lightly-psyched-out, major-key, six-minute rock jam like this one.
6. “Black Gold” – HOMES. Is this a dance-rock song (those rhythms!)? An indie-rock song (those vocals!)? A Southern rock song (that riff!)? Yes and no and all. Whatever it is, it rocks.
7. “Far Away (Saudade)” – Marsicans. The vocals are not usually the most intriguing part of British garage rock, but there’s a quirky, lovely section in the middle here where Marsicans goes a capella. It just totally makes the song. Also the bass playing is rad.
8. “Shapes” – Old Mountain Station. Low-slung, low-key indie rock a la Grandaddy, shot through with big guitar distortion a la post-rock bands. High drama music, but not in an overly theatrical way.
9. “The Absolute” – Jackson Dyer. Starts off as a Bon Iver-esque dreamy jam with lightly neo-R&B vocals, but we get some post-dub groove dropped in and some super slinky guitar on top of that. By the end, I’m groovin’ hard and genre labels don’t matter much to me.
10. “Metropole Des Anges Pt. 1” – EH46. Speaking of post-rock, here’s a slowly unfurling piece that’s heavy on drone and distortion/static. The counterpoint is a delicate keyboard line that evokes the elegance of water dropping on heavy vibrating machinery. The sonic elements bend and contort over the nearly-six-minute length, but the mood remains consistent.
11. “Falling Sky” – October’s Child. Heavy on pad synths, this electro song threatens to explode from dream-pop to electro-jam but never does. Instead, they wash sounds over the listener and sing of “reverie.”
12. “Collapse” – ILY. The pressing movement of techno combined with the mysterious, laidback chill of Postal Service-electro pop creates a very summery jam.
Genre mash-ups are the way of the future, if Steven Hyden’s reading of music’s trajectory is to be believed. (I believe it.) But where Hyden thinks that we’re headed for “a future where all music sounds like everything at once” and nothing is distinctive, Sloth provides a counter-argument. Sloth‘s Out + Out combines alt-country, slackerish ’90s indie, gritty garage-rock and tons more to create a sound all its own. Instead of being a mishmash, the inventive results are a gripping listen.
The sheer number of ideas on Out + Out is head-spinning. In taking sonic elements, songwriting conventions, riff styles, and attitudes from a variety of styles, it seems that lead songwriter Seth Nathan has no end of new elements to include. Opener “Every Circle” starts off with a squalling guitars and ominous cymbal splashes before leaping into a lumbering rock guitar line counterpointed by frantic bass guitar work. A snap change to the verse ushers in a new section entirely: easygoing vocal delivery, lean-back drumming, mellowed-out background vocals. The chorus and the post-chorus instrumental section amp up the rock again. Instead of feeling disjointed, it feels like it fits in the alt-country milieu of rapid starts and stops. It’s the sort of song that sounds improbable in text but just works when you hear it. Trust me on this one.
The wild arrangements don’t let down after that first tune. “Montana” combines spidery lead guitar with alt-country backline and an artsy bridge; “Live For Beauty” has some tropical vibes thrown into the guitar along with a snare shuffle and hectic bass riffing. (Bassist Frank Cicciarello deserves mad props not just here, but everywhere on the album.) “I Wanna Move (to Portland)” marries the cascading guitars of the previous song to the laid-back indie-rock vibes at the beginning, but morphs into an even wilder experience: a brief interlude that’s nearly calypso in tone and rhythm leads into an abstract, dissonant art-rock section that reminds me of Minus the Bear in a really bad mood. Then it segues into a grumbling-yet-funky post-punk thing. It gets more and more complex from there (!). It’s a mind-bending, thought-provoking, brilliant song. Just this tune alone could merit its own review.
There are some moments of sonic breath: “Staring at the Sun” is a walking-speed ballad, while “What You See” follows up “I Wanna Move (To Portland)” with a relatively straightforward mid-tempo rock song (albeit with brittle, damaged guitar solos like something out of Tom Morello’s oeuvre). They show that while Sloth can get experimental with the best of them, they can also knock a traditional structure out of the park. Sloth packs more into the 25 minutes of Out + Out than some bands can get in twice that long. If you’re up for an adventurous, out-of-the-box listen, Sloth’s Out + Out should give you quite a trip.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.