[DUO ROCK] Male-female duos are an indie-rock novelty. Think Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss of Portland's own Quasi (although it added a permanent bassist last year, see feature) and—perhaps most notoriously—Jack and Meg White of the White Stripes. These duos have two things in common: Both believe that two people can record a complete-sounding rock album, and both contain super-tight members (divorcees, in fact).
Likewise, Portland's self-proclaimed "postmodern, psych-emotive rock" band Swallows fits the close-knit indie-rock duo mold. Singer-guitarist Em Brownlowe and drummer Jon Miller moved to Portland in '03, soon after meeting on a looking-for-bandmates message board. After teaming up with producer Sarah Dougher of girl-rock band Cadallaca, they began playing Le Tigre-style pop music with guitars, keyboards and danceable drumbeats.
While the band members are only close friends (both Brownlowe and Miller are queer), the experimental pop music on Swallows' new EP, Cloud Machines, is certainly intimate. The guitars and drums are carefully layered and thoughtfully arranged. And when Brownlowe—who sounds like a young Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders—sings in her low-pitched voice, "We're never gonna break up/ Until we're dead...When you're in love/ It never ends" on "When You're In Love," she might as well be serenading Miller.
Where this closeness provides for tight-sounding music—the songs on Cloud Machines flow seamlessly between tracks—two band members masquerading as a three- or four-piece creates, in this case, an overproduced record. Brownlowe sings her own backing vocals on tracks like "Language Is Restless," for instance, but rather than adding harmony or layers to the song, the result is echoed and flat, as if she's singing the same melody twice.
Brownlowe and Miller make beautiful music together—but their chemistry and talent is most clearly glimpsed in moments where all the production falls away, leaving only drums, guitar and vocals. There's something to be said for keeping things simple—and, on Cloud Machines, Swallows lets production muddle its otherwise perfectly good music.
Swallows celebrates the release of Cloud Machines Friday, Nov. 16, with the Vulturines at Sloan's Tavern. 9 pm. $6 (includes CD). 21+.