Richard Swift is a dilettante, but this isn’t meant as an insult, since nearly everything he touches is worth listening to. There’s Richard Swift the Tin Pan Alley-influenced singer-songwriter, who’s released a handful of albums that recall Randy Newman or Harry Nilsson. There’s Richard Swift the gutter punk, who’s 2008 EP Richard Swift As Onassis pre-dated the current garage rock craze by a few years (and sounds a hell of a lot better, even if it’s a one-off release). There’s Instruments of Science & Technology, Swift’s trippy experimental moniker that revels in glitchy electronica. There’s Swift, the hired hand: while watching Jimmy Fallon during his recent Pink Floyd week, I spied Swift’s trademark curls tapping away at a keyboard in the background during the Shins’ performance of “Breathe.”
But perhaps the great unifier in all these Zelig-like guises is Swift’s production skill. He handles his own recordings, and he’s also manned the boards for Damien Jurado, The Mynabirds, and Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab. All of these efforts end up sounding crisp and warm, thanks to Swift’s use of analog equipment as well as his own production insight. The studio is his natural home: it’s his sandbox, where he’s able to try on all these different costumes and roll tape, just to see what happens.
Admittedly, this is a lot of background for an EP that barely breaks twenty minutes, but it’s necessary to understand where he’s coming from because I don’t know where he’s going. Walt Wolfman is a Richard Swift buffet, collecting seven songs that vary stylistically but each could be a future clue. Nevertheless, it’s an intriguing listen precisely because of this mysterious air.
The EP finds Swift as a soul-pop troubadour, another new role but one that fits him well. Lead-off track “Whitman” is the least-clouded of the songs, pushing Swift’s rich vocals to the front of a ‘60s-inflected swoon. The songs that follow mostly hide his voice, sounding like weird demos that some local soul label never got around to mastering. “MG 333” and “Laugh It Up” prominently feature Swift’s impressive drumming, slightly distorted around the edges to lend some menace to the murky melodies that float on top. These tracks sound disembodied, as if they’re part of a larger album or maybe even some long-lost B-movie soundtrack. Greasy rock and roll (“Zombie Boogie,” “Drakula [Hey Man!]”) and Blaxploitation-style funk (“St. Michael”) might prompt more questions than answers, but the whole endeavor radiates a fussed-over cool that’s hard to deny.
Walt Wolfman might be a clearinghouse for Swift’s old ideas, or this might be his new preferred medium. It’s adventurous and fun, whatever it is, like peering over the shoulder of some mad scientist as he mixes up all his ingredients and waits for the explosion. He seems to be a man out of time: as attention deficit as the plugged-in generation, but with a workmanlike quality that’s as unwavering as his enthusiasm for new sounds and new paths.
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