By Alex Rice
Photo by Giles Borg The Swervedriver of the present.
Aside from that glorious stretch from 1990 to 1992, there really hasn't been a better time to be a shoegaze fan than the present day. In the past two years, My Bloody Valentine resurfaced with an album and toured. Ride and Slowdive reunited for their first shows since the mid-'90s. Another less-heralded but just as essential group riding the shoegaze revival is Swervedriver, who is touring on the new record I Wasn't Born to Lose You.
Led by Adam Franklin, the English group's original run lasted from 1989 to 1998 and yielded four full-length records, including the classic 1991 debut Raise. Music fans always throw out My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, the Jesus and Mary Chain's Psychocandy and Ride's Nowhere as hallmarks of the genre, but Raise is perhaps the greatest shoegaze album you never hear about.
The classic shoegaze sound is defined by huge walls of guitars, dreamy vocal treatments buried in the mix and various atmospheric ornamentation. The genre got its name after many of its progenitors constantly looked down at their effects pedals -- thus appearing to stare at their sneakers. Raise arrived smack dab in the sweet spot of the shoegaze years, but it never really fit in with the preconceived notions of the genre.
Raise would not be what it is without its layers upon layers of distortion, but ultimately it's sonically beefier than most shoegaze records of the time. Not in the way that Ride's Going Blank Again was, of course. Also, it doesn't sound British in the slightest. Despite hailing from Oxford, singer Franklin's pushed-up-front vocals are more California than Cockney, and the album probably includes more lyrics about cars than the rest of the Creation Records catalog combined. That's understandable, though, because it's not very safe to gaze at your Nikes while driving.
Yes, true to his band's name, Franklin yearns for the open road on Raise. "Pile-Up," for instance, sees the automobile as a means of escaping life's metaphorical pile-ups with lines like "Let's just get in the car and let's just drive," and "Let's see what the road holds up ahead." "Son of Mustang Ford," meanwhile, is a paean to its titular muscle car ("Been driving to take away the pain," "The radio still plays among the mangled metal frays/Petroleum spirit daze"). In other words, not the lyrical content of your average My Bloody Valentine tune.
All told, six of the LP's nine songs allude to driving. Franklin sings of engines whirring on "Sunset" and a "four A.M. all-night-hell gas station" on the record's centerpiece, "Rave Down." Ironically, the best song on Raise is the one that would fit most neatly on a Time Life Presents: Shoegaze collection.
"Rave Down" kicks off with an extended intro of Jimmy Hartridge's swirling, down-tuned guitars, and like every good shoegaze song should, does little more than repeat its title for the first 90 seconds. Unlike most tunes by Swervedriver's cohorts, though, "Rave Down" then paints a vivid lyrical picture, weaving that eponymous phrase into the tale of a small town on the skids. There's the kids on the corner that want to beat-box your brain to bits, the scorching sun that's burning pedestrians to the wall and the ex-cop who sucks down beers and shoots flies with his gun because swatting's no fun. "Your town ain't lively up no more," Franklin sings before the guitars swing back in. Might as well rave down, I guess.
The frontman may have been the only first-wave shoegazer to have dreads, which can be seen in all their glory in the trippy "Rave Down" music video. Perhaps that's why Swervedriver never quite caught on commercially -- everyone thought they were Rage Against the Machine.
Raise sounded grunge-y enough for American audiences and featured lyrical imagery that should've played well in Detroit, but in the end Swervedriver became another British band that couldn't quite make it across the Atlantic. The group opened for Smashing Pumpkins on the Siamese Dream U.S. tour in 1993 and headlined clubs here on the back of sophomore effort Mezcal Head, but it was two more albums and out for Swervedriver in the late '90s.
No Swervedriver record did better than Raise's peak U.K. chart position of 44. No single climbed higher than the number 60 achieved by Mezcal Head's "Duel" in 1993. The band's catalog eventually went out of print and wouldn't be revived until they reunited in 2008. You still can't get their third album, Ejector Seat Reservation, in the States.
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