Here’s what happens when you drop a copy of your latest effort into the hands of your A-List author – you might just have to read about it. Atlanta’s own Alex Brenner is strong out of the gate on his second release under the moniker Swingset. As he is wont to do, Alex let’s you know where he is going right out of the box, “Do you remember/when I was/the lead signer/you were my mic stand/and we stood real close.” It’s not remarkable that this (still) young man can write songs steeped in memory, but with what must be his seventh or eighth release of recorded material (he was the chief songwriter for quasi-defunct Sodajerk), that trademark of his storytelling endures.
What is different this time out is the music behind these stories of memory. The Great Shakes E.P. reminds me of several things over the course of just seven songs, but if nothing else it confirms Alex’s recent claim that he has “traded his cowboy boots for Converse” (A-List Archive March 9, 2009). The chorus of the opening track “When Your Heart Stops Working” reminds me of The Replacements at their most radio sensitive, Don’t Tell a Soul. And the hand claps in “Can’t Stop Remembering You,” can’t stop me from thinking about Alex Chilton. Despite that thought, please don’t think that it really sounds anything like the “invisble man who can sign with a visible voice“. Rather, knowing the songwriter here, I think he is drawing on something one generation (or more) before the uber-influential ‘Mat’s. This is to say, there is a firm grasp of classic pop music going on here and it works throughout the record. The claps continue on “Those Nights on The Phone” to great effect.
So that music change I mentioned above has produced two results. The guitars here are bigger, louder and a lot less twangy than anything I have heard Alex do before. His has replaced jangle with hum (and a little fuzz) and I think I like it. But don’t let the sneakers fool you, this is hardly rehashed shoegaze. This collection of Swingset originals also is grounded in the kind of pop rock that used to make clever boys from Pittsburgh into rock stars (even if only for a moment). The record works this way: Tracks 1 & 2 are updated 80s college rock; tracks 3 & 4 take us back to late 60s radio rock; tracks 5 & 6 are 90s power pop; and track 7, well, the slide is back and so is the man who stood with the mic stand.
I really love this record, but when Alex turned up the guitars, it seems that somebody turned down the vocals. About halfway through the record, I would have guessed that he was going for lo-fi production sound – despite the content and style of the songs. Then I was hit with the opening to “Stitches,” which felt like power-pop purveyor Dave Grohl had just stepped into the studio to lend a hook and hand. The songs sound good in that context, but on the big room speakers the vocals (and all the lyrical flourishes that make this record so much fun) are a little harder to sort out amid the bigger, louder sound. In the end, this extended play still leaves me anxious to hear what Swingset has to offer next.