written by Chris Familton
Secretly Canadian have had a pretty high success rate of late with releases from Antony + The Johnsons, Jens Lekman and The War On Drugs. Their most recent is The Atlantic Ocean, Richard Swift’s fourth album, and it is a bold collection of songs that take the listener on a kaleidoscopic trip through the quirkier side of pop. This time round Swift was able to call on some bigger names to work on the record with engineer Chris Colbert (The Walkmen) and multi-instrumentalist Casey Foubert (Sufjan Stevens) playing major roles. Cameos from Ryan Adams, Mark Ronson, Sean Lennon and Pat Sansone of Wilco show that Swift is gaining some much deserved respect among his peers.
Swift has always touched on the more poppier elements of indie music and here he dives in head first to create something widescreen and uplifting. His piano playing features throughout and carries the songs in the theatrical way that High Llamas did on their defining Gideon Gaye album. On A Song For Milton Feher he employs a bar room honky tonk style that is a pure joy to listen to with its pumping bass and squelchy synth accents. It conjures up images of summer and a certain carefree drifting of time.
Interestingly the record has an overwhelming west coast feel to it, even though it is called The Atlantic Ocean. On the title track we get a sense of the angle Swift is taking when he sings “Atlantic Ocean, you’re gonna drown, drown” and takes a a cynical swipe at the east coast scene with its “suit jacket and jeans” and “I’ve got the right LPs” and “all the money you’ll ever need”. He cleverly brings it all together over a LCD Soundsystem sounding track with Scritti Politti vocals topping it off.
Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman are definite touchstones for Swift, both in his music and his vocal style. He employs a theatrical warble at times and rides the higher pitched melodies with a 70s pure tone that could come across as a little saccharine if it wasn’t so catchy. Even when the songs are happily bouncing along there is a darker underside to many of them. On RIP Swift sings “Everyone knows when they’re gonna die” and on Hallelujah Goodnight he sings “Trouble ahead, trouble behind, trouble below”.
The First Time stands out as a highlight on the album by holding back on the piano and allowing electric guitar, strings and xylophone to paint with a more subtle and ultimately satisfying palette of sounds. The same could be said for Bat Coma Motown with its oompah band vibe and playful brass and banjo combination. The closing track Luck Luck is a dead ringer for a Motown single crossed with Queen’s Best Friend. Its bassline rolls along while a Smokey Robinson falsetto washes over the top of the vintage 60’s instrumentation. It stands out from everything on the album but it works in the context of Swift’s exploration of pop in its many forms.
On the majority of the songs on The Atlantic Ocean he successfully captures the essence of rhythm and melody, the key to the best pop music. His is a sound that emerges as refreshingly clean and simple in these times of dubstep, electro, garage rock and melancholic folk. Swift’s music will not lead him to mainstream magazine covers but it will find fans of power pop, orchestral pop and the lighter side of indie gravitating toward him.
This review first appeared on Wireless Bollinger