You cannot quell the human spirit. All of us, to one degree or another, has suffered in some way since the beginning of the pandemic. COVID-19 has redefined our connections, interactions with our environment, dress, and countless other aspects of everyday life. Music lovers of every stripe are longing for a less elegiac and tortured response to our shared dilemma, but many bands and songwriters seem to still be groping for an effective answer to a haunted landscape. Swainn’s eleven song collection Under a Willow Tree casts a wide undefeated eye over the land and fills every minute of these tracks with unbridled life.
It’s never faked. The band’s songwriting connects with timeless emotions and passions while never confining itself. “Voices” shows they are engaged with the modern world and many listeners will share their indignation and apocalyptic perspective. Our world has slowly tumbled further and further out of control over the last quarter century and COVID has accelerated that decline, but the vocals for “Voices” rages against any dying of the light. The punk influence in their music is undeniable and obvious here.
Some songs, such as “Bag of Bones”, have a stronger singer/songwriter vibe. You hear that in the song’s lyrics, they are grounded in everyday human experience rather than larger societal concerns, but Swainn retains the same fierce musical spirit as before. Fiddle and banjo are an impressive tandem on this release and the playing during this song is especially memorable. “Home” is, without a doubt, the biggest break with the album’s tendency towards the boisterous and uptempo. Shaking up the blueprint for the songs pays off with one of the most rewarding performances included on Under a Willow Tree.
“Sink or Float” is a track ready made for both live concerts and radio. The kick-ass chorus is its crowning achievement, but the bass playing deserves mention as well. It really takes off during the song’s second half and Swainn’s expert manipulation of dynamics makes this a dramatic winner. It has a sometimes fatalistic but ultimately resilient lyric message. The eighth track “Fairwinds” returns the band to their punk influences with full-throated fury. Swainn packs quite a punch on recordings, but it’s tantalizing to imagine the live power they bring with energetic rockers such as this.
“Brand New Day” mixes things up and pulls back on the reins. The low-key extended build opening the song transitions into a mid-tempo jangle that threatens to tear away at any moment. It’s a great tune to place this late in the track listing as it maintains the same energy level yet shows a different musical face to listeners. “Another Drinking Song” emphasizes the band’s humor arguably moreso than any other song and its appropriately sarcastic note never dominates the performance.
They remain true to their roots while still bearing their own identity. Phoenix, Arizona’s Swainn, sometimes referred to as Cockswain, will garner much deserved attention for their new album Under a Willow Tree and the songs will figure prominently in their live shows for some time to come.