Kirk Swan unloaded and back where he belongs
Of all the bands in Boston’s fertile indie-rock scene during the early to mid-’80s—Volcano Suns, Salem 66, Big Dipper, Dinosaur Jr., and even the vaunted Pixies—my favorite by far was Dumptruck, the group co-founded by Kirk Swan and Seth Tiven. As guitarists, the duo’s intertwining leads rivaled those of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd in Television, while as singers and songwriters, the pair confidently tread its own path down a road that started with Big Star and continued with the early, Mitch Easter-produced R.E.M.
The band debuted with the self-recorded D is for Dumptruck in 1983, and Easter was at the helm for the follow-up, Positively Dumptruck; both are brilliant, and the band was even better live. Alas, by ’86, things started to fall apart: Swan departed, and while Tiven pressed on, the sort of epic legal problems that make those of our generation cheer the long-awaited death of the major-label system caused him no end of migraines. The band’s co-founders have reunited on occasion since, often in Tiven’s new hometown of Austin, and in between touring with Steve Wynn’s band, Swan has released some low-key but always rewarding solo albums. The third and latest is this longtime fan’s favorite.
Unloaded began as a Dumptruck reunion record but ended up as a solo outing, Swan told me (though he didn’t say why). Nevertheless, “Seth is on a couple tunes, so there are hints of the ’truck.” Indeed.
As a lyricist, Swan was emo almost before emo was emo. Some cynics can be put off by his earnest and unapologetic Romantic streak—he loves to muse about things like snowflakes (“World Stops Spinning”), slate-gray skies (“Dark Cloud”), and Autumn leaves (ah, those Northeastern roots!), and his earnestness is painful and palpable when he sings about things like the end of a relationship (“Walk Alone”) and the suicidal stupidity of youth (“Walking a Thin Line”). But the sporadic clumsiness of some of his words is elevated to a glorious poetry by the strength of his melodies and the alternating fragility and ferocity of those guitar lines, which remain as vital and thrilling as ever. (Go, Kirk, go!)
This record may not be easy to find: Never a master of self-promotion (he hasn’t updated his Web site since 2007), Swan seems as if, to paraphrase Brian Wilson, he just wasn’t made for these digital times. Bug him on Facebook here or here to get these tunes out there for the audience they deserve. Meanwhile, enjoy this clip on YouTube.
Kirk Swan, Unloaded (D.I.Y.)
Rating on the four-star scale: 3.5 stars.