Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Swearing at Motorists. More Songs From the Mellow Struggle (Secretly Canadian, 2000)

"Wish wish wishing that I could just play my guitar/ But you'll find me on the freeway getting high up in my car."

I've seen Swearing at Motorists live a handful of times, and at each show, it's essentially the same deal: half the crowd is really, really into it, and the other half is solidly ensconced somewhere on a spectrum ranging from This Isn't Very Good to I Hate This. I'm always really, really into it: I connect pretty strongly with Dave Doughman's lo-fi guitar theatrics and Raymond Carveresque observations about the romance and wonder buried in the mundane minutiae of the everyday. Plus, despite small crowds -- many members of which are at times openly hostile to his act -- Doughman always carries himself like he's fronting the Who at Leeds, completely oblivious to the fact that significant portions of the audience don't think he's effing amazing. And I admire that kind of confidence.

Swearing at Motorists began in Dayton, Ohio (home of such rock luminaries as the Pixies' Kim Deal and Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices, and, coincidentally, the setting of Family Ties) in the early 1990s as a two piece outfit, with Dave Doughman on guitar and vocals and onetime GBV drummer Don Thrasher behind the kit. While Doughman tends to flesh out the band a bit on the albums with visiting guests and collaborators, Swearing at Motorists is essentially a guy with a guitar backed by a guy on drums (no bass!). It's rock stripped down to its altogether, and Doughman's emotions tend to be as naked as his compositions and delivery are raw. Singing in a soulful slacker tenor, Doughman delivers observations on friendship, relationships, and life in small places that not too many people care to think about, but which fundamentally shape and influence the characters of his songs. And yet, as emo/Dashboard Confessional as all that sounds, Swearing at Motorists maintain a finely-honed edge, and Doughman's lyrics are always refreshingly straightforward and plainspoken, and occasionally hilarious.

2000's More Songs From the Mellow Struggle is, I think, an exemplary Swearing at Motorists LP, in the sense that if you like this album, you will definitely like this band and their other records; if not, Swearing at Motorists probably aren't for you. To be perfectly honest, all these guys' albums have pretty much the same things to offer; opinions may vary, but their approach does not. Again, it's a guy singing over guitar and slightly-better-than-Meg-White drums; sometimes the songs are quiet and slow, sometimes they're loud and slow, and sometimes they straight rock. Though that said, Doughman does capture an elemental dynamic that invests surprises in even the most bare-bones arrangements. And the basic production approach milks the most out of the spare instruments, packing them with a satisfying wallop.

"East of Biloxi" is typically great. The guitars lazily chug and the drums hammer out an idly mammoth rhythm, not sparing the cymbal crashes. Doughman's vocal lines closely follow the catchy main melody with a little help from a wayward organ. It's a lumbering beauty, surprisingly big-sounding for such a minimal set-up, and effortlessly easy to enjoy, with its crashing chords and serpentine guitar solos. "I'll Only Sleep" is a harrowing rush of heartsickness and suicidal self-doubt: Doughman declares, "Look look looking, staring at this gun/ Reflection in the mirror/ Where'd you hide my mother's son?/ Got a funny way of thinking this shit will never end," as frantic strumming and a brisk beat amplify the desperation of the words.

"No More James Dean," with its thunderous drum rolls, is another stirring number, and "Oxygen Please" is likely the best rocker of the album: with a halting, stop-start crunch evocative of Rust Never Sleeps-era Crazy Horse, the song alternates between leviathan stomp and nimble sprint, and features some of Doughman's fieriest guitar playing, which tends to be intuitive and naturalistic, making up for any limited technical proficiency with an abundance of enthusiasm. If you need proof that Swearing at Motorists could burn down your house if necessary, this is it.

However, Mellow Struggle saves the best for last: "Neighborhood of Sirens" is quite simply one of the most stirring, overwhelmingly tender songs I've ever heard. Building around the plaintive, two-note keen of what my Nebraska-born, Wisconsin-bred wife informed me is actually a tornado warning siren, Doughman uses the alarm's languid rhythms and natural melody to construct a hypnotic acoustic hymn, demonstrating both his inventiveness and his ability to find beauty in commonplace surroundings. It's endlessly affecting, lent powerful emotional resonance by its elegant simplicity. "Neighborhood of Sirens" is the stuff that fandom is made of.

Swearing at Motorists keep it uncomplicated, letting the listener find his or her own reasons to accept or reject where they're coming from. Theirs is an emotionally naked sound, with lots of wide open spaces and unembarrassed barings of the soul. Heartbreaking and bracing. And whenever they come to town, I won't be bothered by the naysayers. They'll just leave more for the rest of us.