Puzzling over Current Swell

Current Swell

Ulysses, 2014 

Review by Emmett Robinson Smith

Current Swell is looking for something. The Victoria band’s fourth album, Ulysses, is jam-packed with ideas of desire, some attainable, some not. On the album-opening title track, Scott Stanton sings, “I want to go / where every man’s gone”. In contrast, on the following track, “Keys to the Kingdom”, we find Stanton longing for just those: the keys to the kingdom. Stanton fantasizes about bringing “the king down to his knees” to “give him a piece of my mind”. The desires described on Ulysses range from humble to fantastical, but are all sung with such conviction that it’s hard to know what Stanton truly wants.

These two tracks, “Ulysses” and “Keys to the Kingdom”, are prime examples of not only the lyrical, but musical contradictions that exist on Current Swell’s latest effort. The song “Ulysses” features a southern-style romp, complete with a stomping bass drum and folk-country vocal melodies. This sound can be seen to occupy the same musical realm as a band such as Blitzen Trapper, known for the warmth and delicacy in their songs. Current Swell has recreated these qualities with authenticity, and the band comes out on top for it. “Keys to the Kingdom” begins with spacey vocal harmonies straight out of the band Fleet Foxes’ book. However, “Kingdom” soon turns into an electric, sauntering groove more reminiscent of the White Stripes. The transition is smooth, but it leaves the listener somewhat confused as to the particular sound that Current Swell is aiming for. This confusion is stepped amplified on the third track, “Rollin’”. It’s a song fit for cruising down the highway, utilizing a swung meter, hand claps, and grimy guitar riffs. Taken individually, each of these tracks is genuine and effective. However, in the larger context of the album, this opening batch of songs renders Current Swell sounding restless and unfocussed.

Fortunately, the album becomes more consistent as it progresses. The standout track “Who’s With Us” hits its stride with rich lyrics and musical intricacy. “She said that dreams are just what you make them / High hanging fruit, the risk that you take them” Stanton profoundly cries. After the second chorus, things reach the most instrumentally intriguing point on the album: A nearly two minute agitated, stuttering guitar solo builds and builds, helped along by a stammering snare drum. The guitar tracks become layered and the soundscape gets more and more tense. The song climaxes as the second verse repeats, but this time with the gush of blazing power chords, unrelenting hi-hat, and an anxious-sounding lead guitar track.

The final consignment of tracks is varied, and, at times, unsatisfying. “Desire” lurches back and forth between normal-tempo and half-tempo. The song’s lyrics sum up Current Swell’s predicament: “Don’t know what to desire”, Stanton admits. (Apparently they don’t know which tempo to desire either, which, for better or worse, plays to that line.) The final track, “Flesh and Bone”, is a vulnerable, honest tune which functions as a satisfying closer. As with most of the songs on Ulysses, its strength lies in its lyrics: “Could a flower wake you up and tell you no one is the same as you?” David Lang asks. “Nothin’ like love, nothin’ like pain” is repeated as the song dies out. It’s a simple thought, but it’s so honestly stated that the words carry significant weight.

It’s evident throughout Ulysses that Current Swell plays with honesty and conviction, especially in their vocals. Their lyrics are ultimately what shine through here, and it’s a shame that their clashing musical choices couldn’t better complement their lyrical gifts. When Current Swell hits, it’s enormously satisfying, but when they miss, it’s puzzling.

Find more from Current Swell at currentswell.com

Emmett Robinson Smith is a music reviewer and student. 

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