Indie Roots: Oliver Swain and the Big Machine
Oliver Swain: John Henry
I used to book the Folklife Festival in Seattle and it always saddened me to learn that the most amazing Canadian roots music bands could be living and performing just three hours North in Vancouver, and yet no one in Seattle had heard of them. While a few bands had made the border jump (Be Good Tanyas, The Paperboys, The Duhks), many other bands simply avoided the US like the plague (and with GW in power at the time, who could blame them?).
Well, it’s about damn time that people start waking up and noticing the amazing roots music coming out of the deep woods of British Columbia, and the first place to start is the brand-new CD from whisper-voiced folk prophet Oliver Swain. I first heard his other-worldly voice about four years ago via MySpace when I discovered a red-hot alt-old-time band called Outlaw Social. He sang a cover of Dock Bogg’s “Trouble in Mind” that transported me with its empty silences and his eerie, floating vocals. He was the bass player for Outlaw Social, which tripped me out when I heard his falsetto singing. Outlaw Social didn’t last too long, unfortunately, but I know that there were heated festival bidding wars to snap them up while they were around. We hadn’t heard such a new, refreshing take on old-timey folk traditions in a long time and everyone was excited.
But back to Oliver Swain’s new album. Having been at the center of British Columbia’s roots scene with Outlaw Social and his earlier work with excellent folk band The Bills, he’s brought together some amazing players to join him on the album (fiddler Adrian Dolan from The Bills, young BC guitar wunderkind Quinn Bachand, and Emma Beaton of Joy Kills Sorrow) and he’s also brought some beautiful original songs. Though he’s well known as a bassist, I was surprised by his omnipresent banjo playing on this new album. While not flashy, his clawhammer picking provides a great grounding to all the soaring strings that weave through his songs. I bet he’ll get compared to Old Man Luedecke, another Canadian banjo troubadour, but while Luedecke excels as a modern Woody Guthrie, shooting straight from the hip, Swain is much more elegant and graceful. His music is full of silence, thought, and deep emotion. It’s the Zen rock garden of American old-time music. I can’t imagine jogging to his tunes or bumping them at the gym; the only way to appreciate this music is to listen. Simply listen. Close your eyes and listen. And feel.
Of the tracks on his debut solo album, Big Machine, I was most drawn to “John Henry” and “Little Satchel”. Both these songs were taken from traditional sources, but Swain spins out of the tradition into dark little musical corners I’d never explored before. Little Satchel features a gently whining dobro that keens just at the edge of our perception, unsettling the traditional melody and the listener. John Henry’s harsh vocal harmonies open the track and a freight-train bowed-bass rhythm nicely offsets Swain’s wafting vocals. The title track, “Big Machine”, is also quite beautiful. It’s an original song of Oliver’s that I first heard with Outlaw Social, but his version on this album has more depth and maturity than I was expecting. Outlaw Social played the song full of bounce and fun, but Swain’s solo take is much darker and more thoughtful. It’s another indicator of how much he’s matured as an artist and how much mastery he has over his music.
I guess you could think of this album in terms of the “chamber folk” movement coming out of Boston and the Berklee College (Crooked Still, Natalie Haas, Joy Kills Sorrow), but really this is just a layer of the musical depth on Swain’s recording. Swain’s great talent is his effortless translation of old melodies and words into something thoroughly modern and exciting. This is old-time music as fine art.
Oliver Swain: Big Machine
This post originally appeared on the Hearth Music Blog. Check out our website and roam through our blog and Online Listening Lounge to discover your next favorite artist! We’re dedicated to promoting today’s best Roots/Americana/World musicians.