The last time I saw Victoria, BC, folk musician Oliver Swain, he was swanning dandy-like around a summer festival site, clad in a baggy white shirt with his long dark locks flowing in the breeze. Looking for all the world like a modern day d’Artagnan, Swain oozed confidence, but so would I if blessed with his looks and presence. This is a man with undeniable if-you’ve-got-it-flaunt-it star quality, but charisma and sex appeal aside he also happens to be one of the most respected, hardworking and brilliant roots musicians in Canada.
Regarded as something of a workaholic juggling numerous projects at any one time, Swain boasts a long and impressive CV that began with his first rock band at the age of thirteen. In his adult years he has recorded and performed live as an in-demand session musician or collaborator with dozens of acts, becoming increasingly visible on the Canadian and US folk circuits as a member of several noted outfits: the Bill Hilly Band (latterly The Bills); Scruj MacDuhk (The Duhks); Moody, Penner & Swain (Ruth Moody of the Wailin’ Jennys, and Jeremy Penner, then both formerly of Scruj MacDuhk); Baton Rouge Cajun/Western Swing band the Red Stick Ramblers, and the phenomenal Outlaw Social (both defunct).
Bang up to date, Swain is currently on the faculty of the Victoria Conservatory of Music; he has an ongoing Leonard Cohen tribute duo, Tower of Song, with Glenna Garramone and rotating guests; he plays bass in the Little Feat-esque, soul-fried outfit Fans & Motor Supply Co., and then there is his solo venture, Big Machine. Four years removed from In a Big Machine (released under his own name as opposed to the implied band moniker of the new offering), Never More Together is Swain’s second solo album proper. Originally released in October 2015, Swain is still actively promoting it with sporadic gigging across Canada, whilst attending to his other creative outlets like a plate spinner.
Amusingly categorizing himself as a ‘Sci-fi-Chamber-Folk-Rock-Odyssey-Grass Evangelist,’ it is as good a handle as any for a musician who, whilst in many ways sticking close to folk traditions, cannot resist nudging at the perceived boundaries of the genre. On this compact new collection of eight originals (including a co-write with Vancouver-based, hip-hop influenced country star, Ridley Bent), Swain indeed strays into fascinating territory, typical of the man and the increasingly forward-thinking folk music community of Vancouver Island.
In consideration of the richly talented ensemble Swain has gathered around him, Big Machine is an apt name for this new Swain release. Past and current members of his former bands line up alongside such as Ben Sollee and the obscenely talented multi-instrumentalist Quinn Bachand who, at not yet 20 years old, is already a highly regarded and firmly established star of the Canadian roots and Hot Club jazz scenes. Between them, they have crafted a hypnotic, 36-minute folk album of real quality and atmosphere.
Swain takes centre stage as singer, also superbly playing clawhammer banjo and bowed upright bass. His skill on the former instrument is immediately evident on the sprightly opening title track, also featuring the silky violin of the Bills’ Adrian Dolan (who, for the record, is also a dazzlingly talented sound engineer) and sweet harmonies from acclaimed American jazz/soul singer, Emily Braden.
As displayed on the following No Strange Thing – also featuring Braden – and especially the gorgeous penultimate track and live favourite, Old Dreams, Swain is a beautiful, restrained singer, most obviously compared to Aaron Neville, albeit (mercifully, some might say) with less vibrato. When double- or multi-tracked, as on Old Dreams, or the roots-rock nugget Maggie, Molly & Raul, and the moving acoustic ballad, Gone, the effect is lush to say the least.
At just under two-and-a-half minutes in length the suitably titled bowed bass ambient instrumental The Moan acts as both a midpoint pivot and an introduction to the chugging, lusty Apple Suckling Tree. It is a fantastic, brooding song that gradually builds, then pulls back, making for a very powerful experience in a live setting, I would imagine.
Bringing Never More Together to a dramatic conclusion is the epic Take Me Up. Opening with almost three minutes of bowed bass ambience à la The Moan, then giving way to Swain’s soulful croon, the song transforms into a glorious neo-classical chamber piece with breathtaking string arrangements by Dolan. What sounds like (at least) a string quartet is in fact, all Dolan, his brilliance seemingly celebrated by the euphoric, soaring Swain vocal from the seven-minute mark on. It is, in a word, magnificent.
My only complaint about Oliver Swain is that, due to his multifarious projects and external demands on his time and talent, his stunning solo releases may likely drop several years apart, like the four-year gap between albums #1 and #2. Yet whatever Swain is involved in is of invariably high quality and – at least in Canada – visible and accessible, so while he percolates the next Big Machine release over however long it should take, there should always be plenty of activity from the man to keep his fan base happy while we wait.
Order Never More Together via CDBaby
PHOTO CREDIT HÉLÈNE CYR