There might not be a more curious case of early 90s indie rock than Swirlies. Formed out of the ashes of a Go-Go’s cover band,¹ they began their career in Cambridge, MA, in the summer of 1990. Sonically and historically they stand somewhere in between the height of shoegaze (My Bloody Valentine, Ride) and the up and coming indie rock explosion (Dinosaur Jr., Pavement, Polvo). They are guitar rock all the way, but also restless and creative in the studio, making use of samples, synths, shifting tempos, effects pedals, and other assorted musical weirdness. On top of all this, in 1992 they signed with Taang! Records, which is one of the more outrageous mismatch band/label combinations I can think of. ² For these reasons (plus like, a million others), Swirlies seem to have been left out of the mainstream musical canons of both ‘shoegaze’ and ‘90s indie rock’. They remain lost in an historical abyss, floating on the boundary waters of multiple genres, full with rich personal history of headache inducing lineup changes,³ bad record deals, sparse touring, bird watching, and some really incredible albums.
Named after an obscure graphic equalizer that they and engineer/producer Rich Costey used while making the album, Blonder Tongue Audio Baton was released in 1992. Arguably the Swirlies finest achievement (and definitely their most well known release), the album tears/rips through all sorts of rock/noise territory, and impressively enough it’s done continuously, blending songs, samples, and noise together in an album collage of sorts (if it weren’t for the mp3s I wouldn’t have a clue about song titles). The four-piece setup on BTAB is pretty generic for the time period, with guitarists Damon Tutunjian and Seana Carmody providing the soothing boy/girl vocal aesthetic. Like other notable bands of the era (i.e. Slowdive) this interplay is both the process and the purpose,¼ with the relationship oriented lyrics being either too vague or incomprehensible due to drawn out pronunciations, high pitches, or being buried underneath noise. And yet the vocals remain supremely important to the Swirlies experience, with the point of interest being the easy going pipes of Tutunjian and Carmody, which are both sexual and sleep inducing (that is to say, quite pleasant in a variety of contrasting ways). And the melodies are catchy, of course.
It would be a bit irresponsible of me to not give a certain amount of attention to the guitars on this record: they bend and swoosh and jangle and riff and distort and are the driving force behind Swirlies. So what else? There’s the last minute of “BELL”, which shifts its mid-tempo pace to a frantic, Pavement like guitar-freakout finish. There’s the stop and pop drum fills of “Vigilant Always”, which never cease to pull out a listener’s air drum. There’s the sluggish pace and sad moody vocals of “His Love Just Washed Away”, which musically sounds like love being washed away, no joke. There’s “His Life of Academic Freedom”, a nonsensical track which features Tutenjian singing and playing guitar against background clatter, a synthesizer, and off key horn, and other odd noises. There’s the 1-2 punch of “Pancake” and “Jeremy Parker”, both distortion heavy tracks of wobbly beauty, as the screeching chords combat the angelic voice of Carmody. There’s the super fast, almost punk “Park the Car By The Side of The Road”, which sounds like a long lost Polvo B-side or Merge 7”. There’s “Tree Chopped Down”, which starts off with a dude combing his hair and ends with him wanting to get the fuck away from you. There’s the album’s true head bobber, “Wrong Tube”, which grooves to an almost-motorik beat before dissolving into post-punk and back again. There’s the album’s final track, the vulnerable and melancholy “Wait Forever”, a guitar/vocals-only affair that after several minutes of silence is finished out with some stoned-sounding dude (presumably a band member) talking about the potential drug possibilities of shoving mud up one’s nose.
In a sense, Swirlies are a victim of their era. They emerged at a time when there was an abundance of similar sounding American (and British!) rock bands, and their general lack of genre associations left them mostly unheard and forgotten. Of course they are also victims of themselves, as their use of samples, etc., might make a listener feel isolated and/or not ‘in’ on the joke. It just seems surprising that for an album that encapsulates a time period so well, it’s not brought up more often, either in writing or in conversation. But shit, either way, the proof is in the pudding, and in this case, the pudding is Blonder Tongue Audio Baton. Listen.
— Eric Marsh
¹ The story is: everyone’s favorite local/punk filmmaker, Rusty Nails, was recruiting members for the aforementioned Go-Go’s cover band, which was called Raspberry Bang. Somehow, Swirlies were born out of this.
² Blonder Tongue Audio Baton was released chronologically in between Poison Idea and Sloppy Seconds LPs. Taang! is/was also home to The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, The Dickies, Negative FX, and so on. I’m not saying, I’m just saying.
³ Not limited to: Gavin McCarthy (Karate), Kurt Vile (The War On Drugs, Kurt Vile), Adam Pierce (Mice Parade), Ron Rege Jr. (Lavender Diamond), +20 or so others.
¼ The raison d’être, if you will. Or is it raisons d’êtres?
NOTE: The entire Swirlies discography is available for free download at their highly informative/archival website. We highly recommend you check it out. http://evil-office.net/swirlies/index.htm
Swirlies: Blonder Tongue Audio Baton (1992)
3. Vigilant Always
4. His Love Just Washed Away
5. His Life Of Academic Freedom
7. Jeremy Parker
8. Park The Car By The Side Of The Road
9. Tree Chopped Down
10. Wrong Tube
11. Wait Forever