When Glenn Phillips met Jeff Calder in 1975, the former, late of Atlanta’s Hampton Grease Band, had just released his first solo album and was playing a string of dates in Florida. Calder was assigned to write about him for a local paper. A little over a year later, guitarist Calder moved up to Atlanta intent on forming a band and immediately got in touch with Phillips. The two did some writing together and Calder was introduced to a young guitarist named Bob Elsey, who’d learned more than a thing or two from Phillips. Elsey and Calder formed the Swimming Pool Q’s and produced an impressive body of work in the ’80s. Some of Calder’s songs reveled in literary construct, others in the voices of true loose-cannon backwoods Southern characters.
While the band’s snappy first album generally follows the Athens sound, a singular fusion of collegiate-ham artiness and post-punk desperation, the Q’s add a few interesting wrinkles of their own. “Big Fat Tractor” favors the whimsicality of “Rock Lobster,” but “Rat Bait” is an exhilarating chip off Captain Beefheart’s block with jarring rhythms and growling guitar. In “Stick in My Hand,” the Q’s apply a heavy blues throb and aggro-folk vocal harmonies (Calder and organist Anne Richmond Boston) to a story of Southern religious fanaticism. What’s more, they display a great sense of black humor, like the comic masochism of “I Like to Take Orders from You.”
The Q’s play it more seriously on their second album, blending intelligent, evocative lyrics with a roaring folk-into-rock sound. When Boston sings “The Bells Ring,” you feel like you’re on the Trailways bus with her, escaping from romance, with a Walkman turned up full-blast. When Calder sings “Pull Back My Spring,” you can tangibly sense the tension. Armed with excellent, semi-regional songs and great flexibility in arranging and singing them, the quintet fills the LP with honest, heartfelt music that has inherent strength not reliant on volume or dance beats.
Blue Tomorrow is even better, marked by the band’s growing confidence and burgeoning songwriting skill. Mike Howlett’s production finesse adds the audio definition and power their records previously lacked; the Q’s take the opportunity to stretch their stylistic range further afield than ever before. Boston’s vocals are exquisite — Linda Ronstadt meets Wanda Jackson and Sandy Denny — and songs like “Now I’m Talking About Now,” “Pretty on the Inside” and “More Than One Heaven” show them off to best effect. (For aficionados, a new version of “Big Fat Tractor” demonstrates how far they’ve traveled since that first LP.)
Back on DB Records, the Q’s next issued a rocking, Cheap Trickish single, “The Firing Squad for God,” joined on a 12-inch by four diverse items recorded between 1982 and ’86. Although she designed the cover (and plays pedal steel on “Working in the Nut Plant,” the oldest track), Boston is gone from the band, leaving a stronger but less sensitive quartet.
“The Firing Squad for God” was included as one of two bonus tracks on the CD version of the unjustly neglected World War Two Point Five. Even without Boston, who nonetheless designed the swell cover, it’s a fine record, an audacious song cycle outlining the spiritual slide of post-WW II America. With equal portions of humor (“The Lord of Wiggling,” “Sweet Reward”) and sadness (“1943 A.D.,” “The Common Years,” “More Often Than Never”), the songs convey a tragic sense of loss and mark Calder as an increasingly accomplished tunesmith and conceptualist. Additionally, the underrated Bob Elsey’s guitar work is more inventive than ever.
Boston returned from self-imposed musical exile with The Big House of Time, a strong solo effort that reveals her as a mature, confident pop stylist. This graceful adult gem resonates with understated passion and plain old common sense. The original songs (by Boston and Rob Gal, who also produced and played on the album) are consistently fine; well-chosen material by John Hiatt, John Sebastian, Neil Young and Calder provide brilliant showcases for Boston’s sharp interpretive powers.
Phillips released nine instrumental albums with his own band. (Calder appeared on 1985’s Live, singing their two joint compositions, “Sting Ray” and “Pony to Ride.”) With that ensemble making no new inroads after years of touring and the Q’s at a virtual standstill, the opportunity was ripe for Calder and Phillips to join forces in the Supreme Court. The impetus for undertaking an album together was inadvertently provided by Phillips’ longtime bassist, Bill Rea, who was due to undergo wrist surgery and faced the possibility of not being able to play again. With drummer Bob Andre, the quartet recorded Goes Electric. If this had been a group of unknowns, it would stand as a commendable and solid debut, but, given the two leaders’ previous accomplishments, it falls short. Calder’s deranged roadside prophets and gamblers feel like they’re being kept back a safe distance, while Rea’s impeccable fretless playing, always the perfect foil for Phillip’s maniac-on-fire guitar, provides too pretty a sheen.