The Future's So Bright
Mad science and epic cataclysms with the Swords Project
For a while there, back in the mid-'90s, Portland was supposed to be the next Seattle. Or something like that. The speculation gradually faded, but a few years down the pike, we're starting to reap the benefits of a mass migration to Portland in the form of a new breed of bands. Genre-bending musical mad science is practiced in garages around town. And the Swords Project, purveyors of high-quality, sprawling art-rock epics, is one of the most notable examples of Portland's burgeoning new-rock scene.
The Project's origins date to 1997, when Jeff Gardner and brothers Joey and Corey Ficken moved to Portland from Chico, Calif., where they had played together in Land of the Wee Beasties. Once settled into Portland, Jeff and Corey started a new group called Icebreak.
According to Gardner, "Icebreak played a lot of shows with [San Francisco's] Slower Than, which was Ryan [Stowe]'s band, and we would do these jams with both bands playing. And when we did that, we called ourselves Swords."
The other projects fell by the wayside, musicians shuffled around, and suddenly the Swords Project came into being as a full-time endeavor. The current lineup includes Gardner (guitar), Stowe (guitar), Corey Ficken (bass/vocals), Joey Ficken (drums), Liza Reitz (violin/accordion), Evan Railton (drums, keyboard) and Brooke Crouser (Rhodes electric piano).
So many members makes for a wide variety of musical tastes. As evidenced on last year's four-song eponymous EP, the Swords Project sound incorporates elements of '90s emo-rock (Fugazi, Slint), slowcore (Godspeed You Black Emperor!), modern prog/post-rock (Tortoise, Stereolab) and even classic prog (King Crimson). The songs tend to be long and structurally complex, generally starting quiet and building to cataclysmic crescendos.
"We write songs by basically just jamming. One person will just start playing something, and, well, if nobody likes it, it just won't go anywhere," says Stowe. "It can take a really long time to finish a song. We can spend hours just playing eight bars over and over."
The band has recorded a few such cuts with Larry Crane at Jackpot and Adam Seltzer at the Type Foundry, but the members are building their own studio, where they hope to complete a full-length album before the rains end. "We're shooting for June," Stowe says. "We recorded the EP in a week, but this is taking longer. We have four songs in the can and will probably do another three or four."
The leisurely recording pace may also be partly due to the band's modern approach. "We record stuff on analog tape, but then dump it into ProTools and mess around with it," explains Gardner. "Evan's also got an electronic project called Obian, and he loves playing with loops and samples."
With their fingers on pulses of both rock and electronic music, the Swords projectors are obviously ready for the future. And with their smart songwriting and consummate musicianship, they'll undoubtedly be important players in Portland's next dance in the national music spotlight. Ben Munat
The Swords Project headline Saturday at Berbati's Pan, 231 SW Ankeny St., 248-4579. 9:30 pm. $8. 21+.
French Kicks: New York City's trash can-can.
Long before the Strokes revived the stylishly slovenly look and sound of New York's late-'70s-era East Village, the NYC-Ohio-D.C. hard-pop quartet French Kicks were cleverly crossbreeding elements of Big Apple art-punk with equal parts mod rock and teenybopper pop. Though the initial results sounded more like the vaguely retro post-punk of Jonathan Fire*Eater--the band's former high-school classmates--French Kicks' guttural 'n' gritty riffs and rhythms are deftly matched with a sticky sense of bubblegum melody that makes catchiness seem cool again.
The band's most recent release, the six-song Young Lawyer EP (Startime Records), sounds somehow familiar, but in a timeless way: It's slightly Brainiac, sorta Supergrass, somewhat Jam, a wee bit Gang of Four and, well, kinda Kinks. The reverb-laced ringing guitars and thudding factory-funk drums on "Call Our Hands" and "Destro" lay a firm foundation for the French Kicks' acrobatic three-part vocal harmonies. The keyboard-driven sugar-pop ballad "Piano" harks back to classic Frankie Valli, but as if performed by the Knack. The song's chiming chorus of "I know you can't see me" uses simple, evocative lyrics and bitter delivery to play brashly with varying shades of meaning, much like Elvis Costello's finest work.
As shown by the wide spread of their influences, French Kicks aren't very good at fitting the location-specific codes of rock scenes--hell, they're not even French. And speaking on a buzzing cell phone while house-hunting in Baltimore, drummer/lead vocalist Nick Stumpf says he's eager to escape New York. "We're not actually in New York very often anymore," he admits. Constant touring, long recording excursions and farm-laborer stints have pulled the band out of its Brooklyn digs. Stumpf--along with his bassist brother Lawrence and FK guitarist-vocalists Matt Stinchcomb and Josh Wise--lived all over the East Coast during the band's formative years, and he considers home just a stop on the map, rather than a hip hangout.
This rover mentality noticeably infects the Kicks' music. The jarring, chopped funk that supports the soaring harmonies makes one ask, "So what are French Kicks? A punk-rock band or a pop band?" "I'd say we're definitely a pop band," Stumpf declares.
See for yourself. Dave Clifford
French Kicks play Sunday (with Arlo) at the Blackbird, 3728 NE Sandy Blvd., 282-9949. 9:30 pm. $7. 21+.
SHAME IS OVERRATED
Hiss and Vinegar
TODAY THE WORLD...TOMORROW PORTLAND
Many bands venture into the vast empty spaces of America, only to discover that the love they need can only be found right here in Portland. Others, however, find that the Love Meter™ rises to new heights in towns less obsessed with the vagaries of The Gods of Hip. And with the local rock-label scene currently low on gas--DIY is great, but sometimes it is nice to have someone else put out your crap--numerous Stumptown bands have had to stump their records through other, more distant outlets. Case in point: 10-4 Backdoor, the strange-bedfellows punk/ Southern rawk band co-fronted by King Louie and Joe "Silverking" Phillips, is releasing its debut single on the Solid Sex Lovie Doll label...which makes its home in no more local a place than Italy. The label had also previously released a 7-inch from King Louie's one-man band. A bit closer to home, Flying Bomb Records, a small but sassy punk-'n'-roll label from the Detroit area, is shooting out a 7-inch from The Hunches, with the band's debut album planned by Burbank's In the Red Records. Austin, Texas, label Mortville Records drops the newest from The Real Pills real soon. Finally, hyperactive pop-punks The Flip-Tops are said to be getting the vinyl nod of approval from San Fran's powerhouse tastemaker, Rip Off Records.
DIRTY LITTLE SECRETS: NO, REALLY, YOU SHOULDN'T HAVE
Everyone knows rock stars score all the chixxx. Hell, that's the reason most creatively unambitious rockers learned to play "Stairway" on that pawn shop Ibanez in the first place. But backstage lotharios probably never stop to think that their supposed conquests might spread nasty rumors about the, shall we say, qualities of their love. And who doesn't adore lascivious gossip and/or potentially libelous talk about celebrities' sex habits? (We do! We do!) Of course, Hiss & Vinegar would never stoop to such shallow levels as to embarrass local musicians in these hallowed pages. However, online rawk zine Metal Sludge has no such moral code--it features a list called "The Long and Short of It," in which famous rockahs are "critiqued" by gossipy groupies. Yes, it is as bad and tacky as it sounds. But, lo and behold, suddenly appears a, uh, "long" entry about a certain world-famous musician who resides in this very town! We won't tell you his name, and we certainly won't claim his entry to be anything other than the chatter of a rather untrustworthy source. But since we know you have filthy minds, we will say he's described as a "huge slut" who nevertheless "likes his women to be pretty intelligent." The more tasteless details we'll leave to your imagination--or your web-searching skills.
READIN', WRITIN', RECORDIN'
Another issue of Dan Cohoon's free-jazz/avant-garde/indie-rock zine Amplitude Equals One Over Frequency Squared recently hit the stands; the intro to the issue is a tribute to late guitarist John Fahey by no less an emissary than Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo. You can find it at Powell's and Reading Frenzy...While there, keep an eye out for other fine locally produced music mags like Eric Mast's Thumb and Larry Crane's TapeOp...More recent record releases include All Girl Summer Fun Band, In June, Albert Reda, Misty River and Hudis James, with work-in-progress reported on albs from Curtis Salgado, Swords Project, Bella Fayes, Decemberists, Kleveland and more....
Gossip--it's not just for quilting bees anymore. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.