Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Dust It Off: Swell Maps - Jane From Occupied Europe

Jane From Occupied Europe (Swell Maps)
Album: Jane from Occupied Europe
Rough Trade, 1980

Among the many bands inexplicably overlooked today, none are more inexplicable than Swell Maps. The Maps emerged in the creative explosion in early post-punk UK, and their name is hardly obscure among British indie rockers. However, Americans rarely think of the Maps when considering the best and most influential post-punkers.

But Swell Maps were among the very best and without question among the most influential. Two of the greatest American indie bands of all time, Sonic Youth and Pavement, have cited Swell Maps as a pivotal influence in their careers. And listening to this, the band’s masterpiece, there is little question why.

Jane from Occupied Europe brims with creativity, bouncing from experimental ambience and krautrock to poppy little numbers that sound more like American 90’s lo-fi than anything in their own time. Much of the creativity and variety is no doubt due to the band’s mix-n-match arrangement, with all members contributing to writing at least some songs, no member writing on every song and instrumental and vocal duties divided differently for each track.

Despite all this, there’s also a certain consistency to the tracks. Sonic experimentalism defines even the most accessible of tracks ("Cake Shop Girl," "Helicopter Spies," etc.) while in even the most krautrock-inspired pieces have a certain messy, human warmth. Even "Mining Villages," a brief recording of a typewriter and almost kazoo-like noise, has an accessibly, populist sensibility. With unpolished production, garage-style minimalism and punk energy, the entire album strikes an outstanding balance between the arty avant-garde, and the banging fun of rock.

The real highlight of the album is the final bonus track included on the 2004 Secretly Canadian release, “New York.” The massive sheet of lo-fi guitar is over a decade ahead of its time, complemented by a half-shouted rhythmic melody and crashing drums. Swell Maps have clearly beat bands like Pavement at their own game, at a time when the leaders of 90’s indie rock had probably yet to learn cursive and the state capitals, let alone guitar.

While researching, I found another interesting and thorough blogspot review, so if you'd like to read more, check it out.

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