Richard Swift sure sounds like a bedroom auteur. He penned all the songwriterly songs and wrote all the whimsical interludes on his first two mini-albums, The Novelist and Walking Without Effort, and handled engineering and artwork duties, and played most of the instruments. He even self-released both of them before signing with Secretly Canadian, which is collecting them as one release, immodestly subtitled The Richard Swift Collection, Vol. 1. That canonical title heralds more to come, and I wouldn't be surprised if he already has his next six albums written and recorded (in fact, his next is planned for early 2006). Just to bring these two records into existence requires a forceful willpower and an unflagging self-confidence, and for better or worse, the two albums reflect a serious perfectionist streak.
The Novelist is the more distinctive of the two: as the title suggests, the album wears its concept on its sleeve, even spelling it out on the title track: "I try to write a book each time I speak." As if to conjure visions of the cardigan-wearing artist toiling at his trusty typewriter, Swift dolls up the songs in dapper pre-rock accessories that suggest a Roaring Twenties setting. "Lady Day" floats on a subdued samba and lofty vocals, "Sadsong St." features a ukulele, and "Lovely Night" is dark cabaret pop bristling with spiky clarinets. Yet for all the trappings, Swift sounds a little indistinct, like a straight Rufus Wainwright. That pop scion's entire identity is bound up in the musical styles he appropriates to express gay desire-- or re-appropriates, since many of these genres originally expressed gay desire. The Novelist never sounds like Swift has that immense an investment in these styles: they're just novelties. So by the mini-album's final chapter, the motif has grown superfluous and even tiresome.
Fortunately, for *Walking Without Effort, Swift leaves the creaky prewar radio he's been singing from and takes a few steps toward the present day. Less self-consciously ambitious but more dramatically realized, *Walking Without Effort collects all the urbane lyrics and drawn-out choruses of The Novelist, but loses the glued-on razzmatazz. Sounding like both Jakob Dylan and Randy Newman, Swift seems much more at home among the 70s-pop guitars, Brian Wilson wood-block percussion, and Jon Brion reeds. He wastes no time proving his mettle on "Half Lit" and "As I Go", two diagonal rays of sunny pop whose horns and handclaps make their dark, desperate lyrics sound casual. Before closing with the refined valedictions of "Not Wasting Time" and "Beautifulheart", Swift hits his peak with "Losing Sleep", which handily achieves all of Swift's ambitions, not so much for its lush backing vocals or its sophisticated, crescendoing arrangement than for its elegant melody and heartfelt lyrics-- the two elements to anticipate most on the inevitable Vol. 2.
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