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The Boston Phoenix Mis-labeled

Swervedriver: Back in the USA.

By Jonathan Perry

FEBRUARY 23, 1998:  The business of pop music can be a cruel and capricious thing, calculated, driven by commerce, a repository for some of Madison Avenue's worst ideas and most vacuous impulses. Too often, fabricated creatures like the Spice Girls become ubiquitous pop culture icons -- selling so much and creating so little -- while real artists with imagination and vision are sidelined and overlooked. So it has been with Oxford's Swervedriver, a guitar-powered psychedelic band who weave strands of My Bloody Valentine-style noise into the melodic fabric of classic pop, and who have received more notice in this country for the albums they haven't been able to put out than for the ones they have.

"Mojo magazine called us the unluckiest band in the world," says Swervedriver drummer Jez over the phone from London. "And that's saying something, mate, because everybody has crap luck at one time or another." Swervedriver's began after their audacious 1991 debut, Raise (A&M). In a span of five years the foursome (Jez, who often also engineers the band's sessions, plus guitarists Adam Franklin and Jimmy Hartridge and bassist Stephen George) were dropped by three labels (two US and one British). And though they've continued recording and releasing their material elsewhere, they haven't -- until this week, when 99th Dream will at last reach these shores -- had an American album since 1993. That was the year they issued the roaring, majestic Mezcal Head (A&M), which had the misfortune to arrive smack in the middle of a flannel-shirted grunge landscape. The CD was all but ignored (a gesture Americans have accorded a surprisingly large number of Brit bands this decade), and Swervedriver got dumped.

Although the band, who join Hum downstairs at the Middle East next Thursday, found a temporary home at the British label Creation for their superb follow-up, 1995's Ejector Seat Reservation, they clearly weren't a priority, and the disc was distributed only in the UK. (The $25.95 I paid for my import-only copy was worth every penny, however.) Then, after reports surfaced two years ago that the embattled quartet had finally been picked up by Geffen, nothing but silence followed.

"Three and a half weeks before Geffen was supposed to release our next album, we got dropped," Jez recalls with an edge of frustration in his voice, though he's happy to report that the band put their Geffen money to good use building their own 24-track studio. "We don't know why [we were dropped]. You can never get a straight answer out of those bastards. Our A&R guy got dropped three hours before we got sacked, so there was nobody in there fightin' for us.

"Someone from A&M once told us that it takes four or five listens to a Swervedriver album to see whether you like it or not. And in this marketplace, unless you can hit immediately, it's not going to register with people. But maybe with Spiritualized and Radiohead and Cornershop getting noticed these days, more people are willing to listen to music that's a bit more complex."

That's where the New York-based indie Zero Hour, the latest label to take a chance on the foursome, comes in. This Tuesday, Zero Hour will release 99th Dream, the band's fourth album, which in essence is a re-recorded, revamped version of the CD Swervedriver made (but never got to release) for Geffen two years ago. Far from coming across as a panic-fueled second -- er, make that fourth -- chance for Swervedriver, the album sounds like a self-assured extension of the band's most vivid and lustrous work.

99th Dream opens with a whiplash riff that buzzes in a holding pattern for a moment before napalm guitars crash into the dense, pulsing sprawl of the title track. It's pop with air-raid sirens. Elsewhere, singer/guitarist Adam Franklin's vocals hover and swell, weaving in and out of lush, swirling guitarscapes and thrusting rhythms. The disc's spaciousness hypnotizes, its intricacy dazzles -- and it's always Swervedriver. One track in particular, "In My Time," showcases the band at their lithest and most sonically cunning. Like Leeds-era Who, the group can sound enormous and expansive during their quietest moments -- even Swervedriver's silences seem sculpted.

"We could do a song by the Spice Girls and it would still sound like Swervedriver," Jez says. "I think that's why we haven't split up, that's why we haven't called it a day. I mean, I'm 32 years old, and I don't have a pot to piss in, but I don't care. Because for me, when I'm up there on stage and hear it all click, I know I'm in the best rock-and-roll band in the world. And we're just getting started."

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