The Swirlies have never quite settled on an identity, and that suits them just fine — they’ve got one foot squarely in My Bloody Valentine territory, another in the region of home-recording tape-weirdness and a third in la-la pop land. Despite a turbulent lineup and inconsistent output, they’ve produced some very interesting records, though never a great one; if anything, they get tripped up by having too many ideas.
The initial lineup — singer/guitarists Seana Carmody and Damon Tutunjian (who had both been in Raspberry Bang), bassist Andy Bernick and drummer Ben Drucker — was the most popular representative of the informal Boston/Cambridge “chimp rock” scene that also encompassed Kudgel, Fat Day and a handful of other bands. Beginning with the six-song debut, the Swirlies released a handful of singles in 1991 and 1992. Red Fish Dreams, a split double single with Kudgel, includes two Swirlies home recordings, one of which is the awesome, nearly inaudible “Her Life of Artistic Freedom” — basically amplified surface noise with a little guitar and singing. That track also appears on What to Do About Them, along with all three songs from the band’s first (and most straightforward) single and three new songs, one of which was recorded in a real studio.
The group spent a lot more time in the studio making Blonder Tongue Audio Baton, which incorporates mellotron, Moog and noise — lots and lots of noise, from shortwave radio, feedback, tapes and whatever else they could pull in. The principle for most of the album seems to be that playing a pure-pop song (with the requisite MBV chord changes and blissed-out guitar-storms) and a pure-noise recording at the same time makes both of them more interesting to hear. That’s mostly true here, especially on the static-spattered “Pancake” and “Park the Car by the Side of the Road.” Elsewhere, the band undermines itself with structures that scurry busily around and end up nowhere and too many tempo and texture changes within songs.
The subsequent Brokedick Car EP is unabashedly filler, but listenable enough. It’s got a shorter version of Blonder Tongue’s “Wrong Tube,” two home-demo quickies and two alternate mixes of “Pancake”: the less-noisy “Pancake Cleaner” and a dance version entitled “House of Pancake.”
The Swirlies spent several years going through lineup change after lineup change; by 1996, when the group next released a record, Carmody and Drucker had been replaced by, respectively, Christina Files and Anthony DeLuca. Still, the sound isn’t very different. “Sneaky Flutes,” the centerpiece of the mini-album of the same name, is a noisy rocker that subsequently appeared (as “San Cristobal de las Casas”) on the full-length They Spent Their Wild Youthful Days in the Glittering World of the Salons. The six untitled tracks surrounding it on Sneaky Flutes, though, showcase the band’s more experimental side, including noise blurts, found dialogue and a pointless but charming setting of an A. A. Milne poem.
Cartoonist Ron Regé Jr. was for years an unofficial fifth Swirlie, drawing the band’s record covers, making between-song noise on its recordings and borrowing Tutunjian’s 4-track tape deck when the band was on tour. That’s where Trollin Withdrawal, a duo of Regé and a gentleman who goes by the name of Non-Robot #27, comes in. Their recordings of tunelets, raps, babbling and noise (three 7-inch EPs with seven to ten songs apiece and a cassette) have the lowest imaginable “fidelity” (like, on a Walkman in the back seat of a VW Golf); mostly, they sound like Beck’s most self-indulgent moments. Regé and N.R. #27 are effectively non-musicians, and they’re overly enamored of the “speed-up” setting on the tape deck. Those warnings posted, the records are a delight: totally fun, inventive, charming and sweet, and improving with multiple listenings. When the two of them chant “your dreams can come true and your prayers can be answered” on The Magazine Apocalypso‘s “Bumping Incident,” they’re giggling like they’re stoned out of their minds, but they also sound like they really mean it. Not for the easily annoyed, but definitely at the top of their strange class.