SWTHRT is pronounced "sweetheart", and is a duo made up of Karl Kuehn, who is also in some band that i have never heard of called Museum Mouth, and Becca High, the younger sister of someone else in Museum Mouth. So this is a side project of something i am not familiar with. I downloaded this promo a few months back and put it on my phone for listening.
SWTHRT use distorted guitar, keyboards, male voice, female backing voice, and drums to craft happy little dark new wave tunes. The music is kind of lo-fi, and i think the vocals were recorded using the microphone on a spare cell phone they had sitting around. The voice is echoed and staticky and never mixed appropriately, either way too loud or too soft. The guitar is usually way out in front of the keyboards, and often you have to strain to hear Ms. High's backing vocals under the guitar and keys. In short, the recording on this record sucks eggs. It is amateurish in every sense of the word.
And yet .... there is something here. At times, when SWTHRT are at their best, the amateurishness comes across as a sense of spontaneity, a sense of random joy. I half suspect that these are really just demos for the band, and later we will hear better recorded and mixed versions of these songs. The fact that they are giving the record away on their BandCamp page kind of lends support that that theory, but i guess we will have to wait and see.
Let's discuss the songs, briefly.
Good Omens is the opener. It starts with a nice bass beat, a steady drum hit, and a wash of keyboards seeming lifted from a mid 1980s Cure song. A guitar rumbles in front, echoed and trebly, like something Sune Rose Wagner would have played on an early Raveonettes record. It moves at a fun minimal pace, eventually adding in hand claps. You can't get more fun than hand claps.
I Am In Misery is a dark, new wave guitar tune, like a My Favorite song with Michael Grace, Jr singing lead instead of Andrea Vaughn. It has a happy little keyboard melody that wouldn't have been out of place in that band either, but the guitar is a simple little riff.
Those first two songs seemingly used the same drum loop. On Long Hair Don’t Care SWTHRT add in a spastic drum machine over the drum loop for some much needed variety. High turns in a great keyboard performance, really soaring, and i wish it wasn't buried under the drum loop, the voice, and the simple guitar bit.
I can actually really hear Ms. High singing on Boys With Problems, which is different. Kuehn turns in a great guitar performance here, at times picking slow arpeggios, and at times flying quickly.
So Dumb adds lots of guitar distortion making SWTHRT suddenly sound like The Jesus and Mary Chain, except with keyboards and female voice, as High sings backup and plays a great organ riff in the background. Maggie Valley is pretty much the same song, just at a slower pace and with piano instead of droning organ. I really like the way this song flows.
Aloha Y’all is the song that first caught my attention, not just because of the Southernism in the title. (That is not too weird as the band is apparently from Wilmington, NC.) No, what attracted me to this song is that High plays a high-pitched silly keyboard riff that would not have been out of place in a Besties song. It is that riff which made me go back and give the album several listens, and which ultimately led to this review.
The keyboards get toned down a little on Terror Dread where Kuehn does his best to create that type of melancholy guitar growl that I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness do so well. Alas, he is only one guitarist, while that band has what, three? It sounds a little anemic.
He goes back to playing like Sune Rose Wagner on No Holiday, where the band just try to play the catchiest thing they can imagine. This is a great head-bopping tune.
My favorite tune on the record is next, I Hate This. Lyrically this is about the impossibility of really connecting with another person, but they wrap that antisocial thought up in a bouncing beat and trebly guitar. "I can't understand the infatuation or purpose of being in love". Sing it, brother Kuehn! He really makes his guitar squeal here, while High plays a swaying keyboard riff. Great stuff.
This song actually takes a long time to end, because SWTHRT tack on a few minutes of almost silence (except for an occasional high hat hit). I think this is supposed to make the next track seem more like the hidden tack at the end of the CD. However, that concept doesn't work if you make it a separate MP3 file... Sunroof, the hidden track (MP3 number 11) has a Peter Hook-ish bass, more of those keyboards from The Cure, and fuller drumming than regular. It sounds much more like a band and not a duo here, which is odd after the minimalism of the rest of the record. It does, however, end the record on a real high note.
I have found that many people can take lo-fi recording. Heck, Sebadoh has fans… And i can take such things okay, but i still have issues with the vocals here. The voice is close, almost in your face, echoing madly like you are both standing in a drainage pipe and Kuehn is yelling. I am afraid the vocals are going to turn off a lot of potential listeners. The album could easily get another sponge or two if the voice had been better recorded and mixed with the rest of the instruments.
They are giving it away as a free download, so you really don't have anything to lose except some time and bandwidth. If you like the 1980s, and i know you do, then you should download this.