Visit John Wendland's home in University City, and you'll be greeted by George and Sandy, the two biggest fans of his band, One Fell Swoop. They've seen every rehearsal held in Wendland's living room. They've watched musicians come and go, some sticking around for a few years, some for a couple of weeks. Sit down on the couch, and Sandy will likely lay his head on your lap. George will bring a length of rope knotted at both ends and expect you to pull one end while he holds the other in his mouth. Wendland's dogs believe band practice was designed for people to pay them social calls.
The band warms up with a newly arranged version of "Heaven," by the Talking Heads. Andy Ploof takes the lead vocal on; his smoky tenor is serene, holding onto the beauty of David Byrne's melody while underscoring the ironic view of the Christian afterlife in the lyrics. It could be a left-field hit on triple-A radio someday. Right now, it's unrecorded.
One Fell Swoop are concentrating on promoting their last album, Crazy Time, finished a year ago and, until now, available only in Europe. After a less-than-thorough attempt to get the record picked up by a relatively large independent label, they've decided to put it out on their own Magoo Records label. "We had some issues with the album and couldn't figure out what to do with it," explains vocalist Cheryl Stryker, "so we said, 'Let's shop it around and see if we hear from anyone.'"
"We sent it out to four or five labels," interjects Wendland, the band's rhythm guitarist and main songwriter.
"I don't know why it took so long," Stryker continues. "Before you know it, eight months have gone by, and we're, like, 'Shit, we better do something with it.'"
One Fell Swoop has a European deal with a Swiss label, Brambus Records. That association began more than two years ago, when the band visited a folk-music trade show. "I went through the directory of people who attended and highlighted all the people who were in radio," says Stryker. "I sent them all a CD, and Paul Rostetter turned out to also have a record label. I got an e-mail about a month later. When I read it, I thought, 'Yeah, right.' The first thing it said was 'How would you like to put your records out over here and tour Europe?'"
The offer was for real, and One Fell Swoop has gone across the water twice now, playing small clubs in little towns. Before last year's visit, they were under the gun to record an album to promote when they got there. "We got a CD to [former Lucinda Williams producer] Gurf Morlix through mutual friends, and he said he'd do it. The problem was, we were going to Europe, and we'd be gone for a month. We all work day jobs, so we couldn't take any extra time off."
Instead, they went back to the Music Masters studio in St. Louis to work with engineer Greg Trampe, who also recorded their first two releases, the EP One Fell Swoop (1996) and the album Look Out (1997). Once the tracks were done, they shipped them to Morlix in Austin, Texas, who called in Ian McLagan, member of the legendary '60s rock group Small Faces, to overdub some Hammond B-3 organ parts.
"We didn't get to meet him," says Wendland. "We didn't even know he would be on it. We got to Texas, and Gurf played us the first song, and there's organ all the way through it. We said, 'We don't want organ all the way through this. Take it off' -- but, at the same time, we're thinking, 'Hey, this is Ian McLagan.'"
"It shows that the first few times you hear something, it's really too soon to make a judgment," adds Stryker. "I thought the organ was horrible when I first heard it. Now I hear it and I absolutely love it, and I can't picture it not being there."
Although Morlix also added some guitar, Crazy Time is mostly the work of the five current members of One Fell Swoop. Only three have been in the band since the beginning. Wendland and Stryker moved to St. Louis from Los Angeles, when Wendland's job was transferred in the mid-'90s, and immediately began looking for like-minded musicians. Their first find was Steve Molitor, who played harmonica, for the most part, but also flute and tin whistle. Soon after, they connected with Andy Ploof, co-owner of Music Folk. Ploof, a one-man orchestra, can play mandolin, fiddle, Dobro and lead guitar, with an individual style on each. Spencer Marquart was recruited from the Stonecutters to play drums, and a couple of bass players came and went before Dade Farrar joined the band. This six-piece lineup was preserved on Look Out. There was a lot of energy in that group, a lot of individual voices competing to be heard, but it wasn't destined to last. In three fell swoops, Molitor, Marquart and Farrar left the band.
Sean Anglin was drumming in the New Patrons, who broke up around the time Marquart moved to Columbia, Mo. He took over for his old friend as a temporary replacement two years ago. "Sean's first show with us was at Powell Symphony Hall," says Wendland. "We were on What D'ya Know, the radio show. He'd been with us for one week; we did two songs and got paid, like, $1,500. He thought it was all gonna be like this."
Wendland's neighbor recruited Mike Tiefenbrun to the band. "I saw him at church, of all places," says Tiefenbrun. "Halfway through church, he says, 'I have to talk to you.' He sounded really serious -- I thought his wife was sick or something. He said, 'I know these friends of mine are looking for an upright player.'"
Crazy Time is the work of the new, tightly designed One Fell Swoop. This five-piece version of the band is more subtle than the old lineup and, as a result, probably burns longer and harder. Stryker is the main singer now, and she's never sounded better. She's always had a strong voice, but now she's focused like a classic soul singer, holding back her power until the right moment of release, when it can shatter the emotional heart of the song. The new rhythm section is slinky and sinuous, matching Stryker's vocals in dynamic control. Wendland's acoustic guitar is strong and understated; although he's got the chops to be flashy, he prefers to hold down the rhythmic fort. The ace in the hole is Ploof, who's taken on a much bigger role as the band's only soloist. He plays a lot more guitar, running countermelodies to the main one and commenting neatly on Stryker's vocal innuendoes. His Dobro work on "Spike Driver's Blues Revisited" is probably the highlight of the record, a simmering, sensual exploration of mood and heat. He has also stepped up as a songwriter and a singer, two talents he'd barely hinted at on the previous recordings.
Between Ploof and Wendland (and, it should be noted, the two lyrics written by RFT contributor Roy Kasten), the songs are damn near perfect, bolstered by simple yet solid melodies. Most of the lyrics are about the passing of time and the pain of changes beyond one's control. They can be lighthearted, as on "Wreck of the Old 33 1/3," which conflates the passing of the LP era with nostalgia for old railroad songs. They can be about social issues, such as urban sprawl ("Way Out West") and permit requirements for street people ("Chester and the Tarot Card Queen"). Or they can be about romantic devastation, with lines such as "A thousand sounds came crashing down on you and I as we were walking down Fourth Street/Sounded like 'Revolution No. 9' from Wandering Eye."
George and Sandy know these songs well; the band runs through most of the new material in each rehearsal. The dogs fall asleep at the visitor's feet, and One Fell Swoop plot their next move.