When I first received The Richard Swift Collection Vol. 1 in the mail, I was a little pissed to find that it was a double CD. I got places to go, people to see. I’m important around here, people know me. I just simply don’t have time to listen to two CDs and only get one beautifully written review out of it. I’m that busy. Then I looked up at the post-it note I have on my desk that said “Note to self: world does not revolve around you” and I remembered that people don’t put out albums at my convenience but rather to satisfy their own musical urges. Then I wasn’t so upset with Richard Swift anymore.
The Richard Swift Collection really makes more sense as two CDs in the first place. Although, both could conceivably fit on one disc, both are truly two separate entities, in this case, literally. The Novelist was Swift’s full-length debut and Walking Without Effort is the follow-up. Both were released previously as separate discs on Velvet Blue Recordings but the higher-ups at Secretly Canadian had the good sense to combine the two efforts and out comes The Richard Swift Collection.
If both albums were on one disc, it would be much easier to criticize. I could say something akin to “The Collection isn’t focused and seems to switch genres midway through leaving the listener confused blah blah blah.” But I can’t do that. Damn you Richard Swift for making this harder for me. Both The Novelist and Walking Without Effort start off with a short introductory song and then go on from there but that’s essentially where the similarities end.
The Novelist takes a little getting used to and is the less immediately accessible of the two discs. But once you get into it, you’re really into it. Swift creates this world where any musician after the Beach Boys decided not to pick up their respective instruments, and instead of critics constantly talking about how much a band sounds like Joy Division or Gang of Four, they instead go on about how every new band is just another Van Dyke Parks clone. It’s a truly wonderful world.
Swift is able to achieve a sadness that a lot of other artists cannot attain because of his use of untapped genres. While sometimes you’d wish he would just cut out the “recording an album that sounds this fuzzy actually costs a lot of money” motif, it gives a warmer feel to the record, almost ragtime-y in scope. The Novelist‘s best song, “Looking Back, I Should Have Been Home More,” feels like it should have been sung in a smoky speakeasy, where lonely men are on the prowl for lonelier women and when you walk outside, you are surprised at how sunny it actually is. Swift ends the song, asking melancholically, “Remember when you loved me babe?” You truly believe that this man wants to know.
Walking Without Effort is the more typical of the two albums but is much more inviting and the introduction belies this aesthetic. Instead of the the canned strings and horns of “Foreward” (sic), “Walking Without Effort” is of dreamier, more modern sounding stock. There’s an Andrew Bird buoyancy to Walking Without Effort but without the technological wizardry. Or the whistling. Swift inhabits the sunny L.A. of Randy Newman, as his press release is desperate for the world to be cognizant of, but his
L.A. is not without it’s fair share of smog.
Swift is backed by a barrage of strings and horns on almost every song but he still keeps his vocals front and center and the instrumentation never overpowers him. But despite the strings and horns and organs and what have you, both The Novelist and Walking Without Effort are understated affairs. “Mexico (1977)” and “Losing Sleep” are the least restrained songs on Walking Without Effort but Swift keeps them simple and they never get too big for their own britches. “Not Wasting Time” is the only song to border on annoying piano balladry but Swift cuts it off before long.
On “Losing Sleep,” Swift sings, “So come on love / I’ll sing you a song about how I drove to LA / With my head full of gray.” And while this lyric may seem ambiguous without hearing the record first, it makes total sense afterward. The Richard Swift Collection allows you into this world of gray, and afterwards you may not want to leave.