Oliver Swain released an impressive debut album in 2011 under the moniker Big Machine. Enlisting the help of local luminaries like guitarist Quinn Bachand and multi-instrumentalist Adrian Dolan, Swain crafted elegant tunes with subtle variations on the banjo finger-picking and fiddling forms of Appalachian folk. Part of the charm of the group was that the heavy-hitter lineup sounded like a tight and cohesive whole while at the same time showcased each of their prodigious talents, and their live shows were like a combination of a living room picking session and a well-organized pop-folk concert.
A few years later and a couple of small changes in the lineup, the group gives us their new release, Never More Together. The musical landscape is more varied here than on their debut, and one of the most immediately noticeable changes is the sweeping symphonic additions that add depth to many of the tracks. Whereas before the fiddle was largely used for syncopation and counterpart to the banjo, here it is often layered deep in the production as part of a larger string section. Gorgeous but subtle Hammond organ swells combine with clever vocal harmonies, and unexpected chords and rhythmic patterns provide the same musical twists and turns that made the songwriting on his debut so interesting.
Many of these songs are planted more firmly in the pop-oriented singer-songwriter tradition, where the melodies themselves serve mostly as a vehicle for telling a story. In addition to his skills on the upright bass and banjo, Swain has a natural ability to craft vivid images relating the natural world to human relationships. On the title track he sings, “We were never more together / than when we sandbagged and tethered / the windows for the coming of the storm”. And on the moving ballad Gone, he compares his lost love to a prairie flood. “Floodwaters buried my beautiful prairie / Gone, gone, a riverbank in a storm.”
However, when using similes to the natural world it’s easy to slip into triteness, and on the album’s other ballad, the Gordon Lightfoot-reminiscent “Old Dreams,” the images tread that line. “These are old dreams / like a mountain and a stream / we sing in to the night.” And occasionally the themes and story lines are so personal they are downright obscure. Maggie, Molly and Raul” is certainly unique with its nursery-rhyme intro and dynamics, but the story line and relationships between the characters remain unclear by the end of the song.
But Swain and his band have a knack for making songs with even the most obscure or depressing subject matter sound uplifting, especially when it comes to the creative chamber-pop and soft ballads that dominate this release. With the traditional-style banjo and fiddle workouts that made for such a great debut album, this new material should only add to the dynamism of the group’s live show.
Review by Andrew Bishop
Published in analogue magazine’s Oct/Nov 2015 issue