Texas and Americana Music Reviews






The Swamis
The Swamis & TURL
Lynn Point Records 006 & 007

by William Michael Smith

In Knoxville, the home of the University of Tennessee, college bands never die, they just get remastered. In fact, Lynn Point Records seems to be making quite a nice living, thank you, from remastering and distributing little diamonds in the rough from the apparently overflowing musical vaults around the Knoxville collegiate ghetto. They've reissued the Taoist Cowboys, Mic Harrison, and Bob McCluskey's early works and now they've issued two discs by The Swamis, a self-titled CD originally recorded in 1990 and TURL, recorded in 1991. It is no coincidence perhaps, since Lynn Point president and former V-Roy Jeff Bills happened to play drums on the latter album.

The Swamis, primarily the brainchild of boyhood friends, college roommates, and co-writers of the Swamis' material, bassist John Tilson and guitarist Dave Kenney, were a part of that wonderful concept and American musical phenomenon, the garage band. In fact, both records were recorded in Swami John Tilson's garage (in the pretentious age we now live in, this would be known as "the practice space"). The Swamis took their cues from Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart and local garage heroes Smokin' Dave and the Premo Dopes in blending humor, social comment and music into something at once hip and "underground." While their smart, hip, humor-at-all-costs concept might not have worked well in Topeka or Abilene, in a college town like Knoxville it was a very viable and "in" thing.

There is a 60's vibe to The Swamis' garageness, lots of fuzzy Fever Tree guitar by Daniel Moore (Taoist Cowboys) and Do-the-Jerk danceable rhythms. Some of the playing is tick-tock tight and some of it is just full blast abandon and ragged as hell.

But Zappaesque humor is the stock and trade of The Swamis, and both of these albums are filled with it. Just how far out would The Swamis go for the sake of humor and coolness? Well, with song titles like "Phallocratic Campfire Song," "Veil of Beers," "Candy Crème Dream," "In Spiral Vision," "Cynical Wet Dream," "Hefty Cleft," "Wrap Your Cheese," and "100% Chance of Pain" it's fairly obvious they'd go pretty far. Even over the edge. Hell, they probably didn't even think there was an edge. Or maybe they thought they were the edge. Obviously they weren't even considering that there might be an edge when they recorded what may be their signature work, "Mother In Law," a song that could have been cribbed from the Country Dick Montana/Mojo Nixon songbook.

She smells like a biker
And she cackles like a jackal
Dressed to kill in that new pants suit
You can hear the static crackle
Fix her lovely Sunday dinners
She'll complain that they're too spicy
And those migraines out the ying-yang
Like she's slurpin' on an Icee

Now if you take her out to eat
She's a thrifty little booger
She starts fillin' up her purse
With little tiny packs of sugar
And you better run for cover
If she takes off them there shoes
They must smell somethin' awful
'Cause they done turned her hair blue
She puts me on the path to heaven
By giving me some hell

The V-Roys have been rumored to cover "Mother In Law" in some of their more alcohol-impaired performances.

The Swamis also excelled at another form of humor: the vicious parody. Kenney and Tilson originally learned their songwriting skills in high school by rewriting the pop songs of the day. While their Swamis' work took them well outside the boundaries of parody, on "Lou Reed" The Swamis mimic the New York rocker to the music of Reed's mega-hit "Take A Walk On The Wild Side" and in Reed's lethargic barely-got-a-pulse voice so well it would make Weird Al jealous.

Why are you runnin' from me?
Have I got herpes or halitosis?
You don't have to agree
To nothin' you don't want, but Holy Moses

The TURL disc displays the considerable musical development The Swamis underwent in the year after the self-titled first album was recorded. TURL is a tighter, surf music influenced, harder rocking, more professional sounding record than the loose, jangly, all-over-the-place music on the first disc. This is not to imply that the first disc is unworthy or that TURL is somehow better. But there is a distinct difference in the sound on the two records, with TURL having better sound qualities and a tighter presentation. But the humor is non-stop on TURL too, whether it is in the form of Zappan sarcasm and cynicism or of sophomoric, collegiate smartass Saturday Night Live shenanigans. The wistful "Lens Cap" shows the kind of wit and situational humor that pervades this trippy disc.

Baby, you ran the video camera
While we made love 'til dawn
But you left the lens cap on
You could have proved
That I've been moved
But now that opportunity is gone
Yeah, you left the lense cap on

But don't think The Swamis couldn't handle a love song. Well, actually, they couldn't. But they tried. It may not have been love, but they were at least wrestling with the concept, searching for their sensitive side. "Talk" has a certain Bob McCluskey influence in its sentiment and point of view.

What I said to you, did I really mean it?
Well, how can you know if I won't repeat it?
I wish I knew you well enough
To know when I could say shut up
And you would know I didn't mean it mean
You'd know that there are better things
Than talk

Both of these records are historical documents, a peek inside the simmering, smart college garage rock world functioning on the fringes of a dying punk movement a decade ago. They experimentally combine numerous musical styles, from surf to psychedelic to punk to pop, with sounds derived from Blondie ("Hefty Cleft") to Petty to Zappa to Beefhart. And it's all done in an innocent spirit of hijinx with a complete lack of seriousness. We don't often see that these days and we could probably use a large dose of it.

* Quit taking everything so seriously. Go over to http://www.lynnpoint.com/, plunk down your greenbacks, then dryclean your Sunday turban while you wait for the mail man to bring The Swamis to your spiritual rescue.

Contact William Michael Smith at: wms@rockzilla.net


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