One Fell Swoop – All for one, one for all
Trying to describe One Fell Swoop, I feel the way Bob Dylan must have felt writing “Sara”, his epic paean to a mystical lady who is “so easy to look at, so hard to define.” Indeed, much of One Fell Swoop’s live appeal is the sight of five musicians interacting to spotlight each member’s individual talents but never sacrifices the group ethos.
One song will feature pianist Cheryl Stryker’s soulful and soul-searching vocals: a torchy, twangy blend; a voice as strong and clear as opera, sweet as southern soul; a singular voice, but think of a tall glass of Billie Holliday with a shot of Lucinda Williams on top. Then they’ll follow with bassist Dade Farrar’s working-class vignettes, which he delivers with verve and clarity. In both his terse but descriptive writing and his economy of phrasing, Farrar echoes classic country heroes such as Merle Haggard and Lefty Frizzell.
Moving on, Swoop will then highlight chief songwriter and guitarist John Wendland, who sings his own sometimes dark, sometimes funny songs (sample title: “Hairless Chihuahua”), with an evocative blend of laid-back, Rick Danko-ish melancholy and hard soul reminiscent of Elvis Costello. All the while, multi-instrumentalist Andy Ploof (mandolin, fiddle, dobro) and drummer Spencer Marquart keep sturdy rhythms and add folky, funky touches.
Whether playing their own tunes or well-chosen covers (standards such as “Long Black Veil”, “Satin Sheets” and “Hand Me Down My Walkin’ Cane”), One Fell Swoop pushes each song as an indivisible unit. Having so much potentially overlapping talent (more than one good writer, many good singers) can sometimes cause the demise of promising young bands. But when I asked Stryker how Swoop manages to balance its wealth, she said “It’s just obvious to us.”
What should also be obvious to anyone who catches a live Swoop show or hears their debut disc Look Out (released last fall on Magoo Records) is the direction this band is headed. Recorded live in the studio, the 13-song collection manages to capture the eclectic variety of a Swoop gig, which is to say that it sounds like a great mixed tape.
As any mixologist knows, it is difficult to choose individual songs and voices that speak for themselves yet also form a cohesive whole. (At the time the record was made, the band was actually a six-piece, with Steve Molitor adding touches of harp, whistle and fiddle in addition to writing one song and co-writing another.) Swoop does this by finding unlikely places for their influences to shine through.
“Sad State Of Affairs”, for instance, might have been just another competent pop ballad, but Ploof’s mandolin, gently quoting “Dark As A Dungeon”, lends an urgency to Stryker’s plaintive narration. “Lone White House”, Wendland’s finest composition (it could stand alone on the page as a poem), begins as a stark prairie ballad but finally attains a folk eloquence reminiscent of The Band’s epic “It Makes No Difference”.
If these examples make Look Out sound a bit melancholy, so be it, but the dominant mode of One Fell Swoop’s music is joy: not the forced or passing pleasure of trite lyrics and air-pumped harmonies, but the earned exaltation that comes from giving common form and substance to the disparate forces in themselves.