“Under a Willow Tree” by Swainn
Phoenix, Arizona isn’t the sort of place you associate with Celtic music. The arid deserts and blistering heat are far removed from moors, pastoral landscapes, and frequent overcasts. Swainn, however, never received the memo. The Southwest based quartet’s third album release Under a Willow Tree is their strongest release and harbors a ear-popping amount of musical power. Jeff Tamelier’s production isn’t flawless, he puts a little too much emphasis on the drums, but it’s hard to find fault beyond that. Swainn comes across sounding like a fleet-footed bulldozer capable of dominating your attention while exerting seemingly minimal effort.
Mandy’s fiddle playing carries their songs a long way. Much of the time she concerns herself with blending in but “Voices”, the album opener, illustrates her talent for singeing the track with occasional fiery flourishes. They are never ornamental and punctuate the song’s emotional tenor. The lead vocals are gruff, at points, yet always musical. There’s a call to arms character to songs such as this and we will hear it again. Swainn embraces the stereotypical design of a Celtic influenced band but the melting pot nature at the foundation of their songs sets them apart.
“Bag of Bones” is my favorite track on the album. The songwriting reaches a high level of maturity here than elsewhere despite the five star quality of the other songs and I believe it has to do with the wider perspective of this one. Swainn approach taking in what it means to be a human being, in all its screwed up and hopelessly broken glory, and their habit of nailing powerful choruses serves them well here.
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“Home” is another mature moment. They deserve praise for invoking an actual sense of community through their music on this song. It strikes a much more intimate note, as well, without ever deviating far from their core style. “Let It Loose” and “Sink or Float” make for quite a duo. The first has a song title telling you virtually all you need to know – it’s Swainn cooking at full tilt boogie and hits listeners with quite a wallop. “Sink or Float”, on the other hand, is a little more subtle than its predecessor while also having another hard-hitting chorus. Many of the songs on this album seem radio-friendly without ever sounding calculated.
“Brand New Day” finds Swainn tinkering a little with their formula. They lean heavier on dramatic construction with a simmering intro that builds tension. It’s a powerful affirmative statement, especially when it hits its full stride, and the comparatively laidback mood is a welcome shift in gears. The band concludes Under a Willow Tree with a tip of the hand and a wink. “Another Drinking Song” makes me smile because they can poke a little fun at their own image while still making both a substantial musical and lyrical statement. They have a definite sense of camaraderie burning through each of these songs. This is a band who enjoy writing, performing, and recording music together and I expect they will continue doing so for many years to come.
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