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Richard Swift
Dressed Up For The Letdown
Secretly Canadian Records

Like his previous releases The Novelist and Walking Without Effort, Richard Swift's latest album Dressed Up For The Letdown is a short-and-sweet offering of rainy-day jazz ballads and catchy 60's folk recollections. Each of these ten songs comes to life with the honest, bare-bones poetry their creator so wonderfully pens. Furthermore, by giving the lyrics a more personal touch and adding a few more players to his rag-tag orchestra (there's even the occasional synthesizer), Swift's Letdown slips onto paths that his earlier albums dared not venture. The result is a bold and subtle step forward, taken by a young songwriter who's maturing well beyond his years.

The album starts off with the title track. Imagine this peculiar opener is set in an extravagant concert hall, where the evening's performer waits with his guitar in the shadow of a red stage curtain. The band is ready, the well-dressed audience eager, and "it's time for the show." A gentle finger-plucked melody eases its way through the house speakers, setting the music off with a jaunt as the audience claps along. Suddenly the curtain is lifted and the audience gasps. Excitement turns to disappointment when the spotlight falls on the shopworn Richard Swift, who sits plucking away and groaning the opening lines into the microphone. "Dressed up for the letdown/write songs for the wrong crowd," he murmurs. But regardless of what the title and lyrics suggest (or even expect), the album is certainly no letdown.

This title track downer is eventually budged off the stage by an upbeat toe-tapper titled "The Songs of National Freedom." Swift bounces the song forward with the kind of rag-time piano jive that made Randy Newman an original soundtrack celebrity. And with vocals packing a nice rhythmic punch, Swift colors the opening lyrics with perhaps his catchiest melodies yet, as he sings, "We've seen the rain we've seen the sunshine/And darling you and I could never be wrong/I try to hide away for sometime/It seems like all I had was you and a song." These lyrics promise the song won't be without Swift's trademark gloom. But with an oddly positive mood and a chorus that joyfully springs to life, "National Freedom" proves even a cynic like Swift can't deny how good it feels to have a song in your heart. Here, Swift sings of his past opportunities for fame and fortune; chances he's quite passionately considered taking. As the marvelous chorus proclaims, "I feel alive, I feel alive/ like I could try for the first time at getting it all." Swift sings this with such passion that listeners can't help but believe every word. Still, his reckless abandon is interrupted by the revealing second verse. Here he sings, "I've made my way into the spotlight/just to realize it's not what I want." And on the song's bridge, Swift crosses over into memories that remind him of what does make him feel truly alive: singing for the pure joy of it. "I'm moving along at the speed of sound/remembering the songs of National Freedom" (by the way, Swift's touring band is named the Sons Of National Freedom). It's an unforgettable song, perhaps the best of his career thus far.

Another fine track with a message treading hopefully between pleasure and pain is the quick-strummed acoustic rocker "Most of What I Know." Though at times quite heartwarming, this song is not ignorant to the violence and indifference characterizing the present times. The first verse itself saves the track from such naiveté, opening with the lines, "Sad to hear the world collapsing/All inventions made to trap me." The narrator longs "to find some place of silence/far from all their tongues and violence." Luckily, the chorus, with its warm "friends-first" mantra reminiscent of Carol King, gives Swift a safe haven from the mess around him. Here the narrator finds he can face the doubtful days of an unstable world only by depending on those whose love empowers him. As he sings, "Everybody wants for me to see/that most of what I know I can't believe/but your love will keep my heart alive." Lines like this demonstrate Swift's uncanny ability to brew together his outright cynicism towards much of contemporary culture with a genuine optimism towards humanity that never ceases to grace even his bleakest of songs. "Most of What I Know" picks up a pleasing pace as tom-tom rolls thicken the background. And as the conclusion nears, a trumpet bounces out a golden melody while Swift's raspy vocals soar to the forefront, repeatedly proclaiming, "Your love will keep my heart alive." The next track, "Buildings in America," has a similar theme.

The album's most honest and direct song is the spooky "Artists and Repertoire." It begins with dark and brooding piano chords that create quite a frightening atmosphere. Swift, playing the role of an unnamed music industry representative, haunts the air with his sinister vocal melodies. The shady character sings, "Sorry Mr. Swift, but there's no radio/that likes to play the songs of your loveless sorrow/Just sing us a jingle and we'll float you some bread/and all it will cost you is your heart and your head." This track isn't some "damn the man" rant of an underappreciated artist. Rather, it illustrates a very personal experience that apparently has marked the singer with a still-healing scar. As a result, he's become rightfully jaded towards a mainstream music industry that all too often demands artists sacrifice their sincerity, not to mention their intelligence, for the sake of monetary gain. As the somber pianos continue, trumpets bleed even darker colors into the picture. The sound emerging from the brass bells sound like the kind of music that would accompany someone home after they've lost their job, a family member, a lover, or all the above. Now, "Artists" doesn't place the blame solely on the business side of things. Instead, through its sound and words, the song portrays a common tragedy so many musicians face when commerce overshadows art. The closing line especially nails this, as he sings, "Sorry everybody for the things I've said/got a wife and kids and a gun to my head." But even in this dark narrative, there's a glimmer of light catching listeners by surprise. It's heard when Swift, now singing as himself, recognizes, "My name will go missing, but the songs will be here."

The final song on the album, a short and bluesy track titled "The Opening Band", is like gospel music for the mocked and ignored. It begins its clever biblical allusions singing, "John the Baptist was the opening band/that no one paid to see, except you and me." The next verse speaks with a similar tone, this time presenting a direct challenge to the culture's oft-preached image of a "militant messiah." Swift sings, "His cousin Christ, he was strange but he was nice/They tried to kick his ass, he didn't fight back."

And so concludes Richard Swift's latest addition to his small but stellar discography. With that rare ability to make simple lyrics the most poetic, not to mention a keen eye for social commentary and honest cultural musings, Swift is proving to be one of the most promising of today's emerging songwriters. So no matter how weary of fame he may be, Dressed Up For The Letdown is hopefully the album that wins him the wider audience he deserves.

-Justin Stover

Track Listing:
1. Dressed Up For The Letdown
2. The Songs Of National Freedom
3. Most Of What I Know
4. Buildings In America
5. Artists & Repertoire
6. Kisses For The Misses
7. P.S. It All Falls Down
8. Ballad Of You Know Who
9. The Million Dollar Baby
10. The Opening Band

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