Album of the Week, October 19: The Swimming Pool Q’s
October 19, 2014 Leave a comment
Jeff Calder was born and raised in Lakeland, FL. He developed a fondness for southern literature and offbeat music, notably Captain Beefheart. When he discovered Georgia’s answer to the Captain, the Hampton Grease Band, he realized that it might be possible to merge the two. While working as a freelance music journalist, he was introduced to Atlanta guitarist Bob Elsey by HGB’s Glenn Phillips. Elsey’s fondness for off-kilter rock and Hendrix guitar pyrotechnics helped inspired Calder to form a band. The pair flirted with heading to New York, but decided that to pursue their distinctly southern lyrical vision, they should base the band in Atlanta. The Swimming Pool Q’s (named punningly after mishearing a warning of a “swinging pool cue” in a seedy bar) debuted in 1978 and built a solid following in the slowly emerging southern New Wave movement that included Pylon, the B-52’s, R.E.M., Let’s Active, and the dB’s. Determined to prove that southern music was more than what he called the “Boogie Establishment,” Calder wrote literate, often biting lyrics that both celebrated and dissected the complexities of the South. Wedding the words to music that owed little to the jangle-pop that defined most of southern alternative music, he and Elsey fronted a rotating cast for a few years. After a successful self-released single, they signed to DB records for a solid debut, The Deep End, featuring harmonies from Anne Richmond Boston. The disc sold well and caught the attention of the major labels. Eventually A&M signed the band, now a steady quintet with drummer Billy Burton and bassist J.E. Garnett.
|Title||The Swimming Pool Q’s
|Act||The Swimming Pool Q’s|
|Label||A & M||Release Date||Fall 1984|
|U.S. Chart||n/c||U.K. Chart||n/c|
Deciding to make the most of the band’s talents, Boston was moved to co-lead vocalist, a smart move that finalized the Q’s distinctive sound. Calder’s distinctive southern vision and gruff but musical vocals, Boston’s enchanting clarion voice, Elsey’s stunning guitar work and Burton and Garnett’s steady underpinnings created a sound that should have made them stars.
The disc kicks off with a crisp drumbeat and launches into a powerful musical journey in The Bells Ring. With just a bit of jangle and a whole lot of muscle, the band propel Calder’s tale of escaping bad romance on a bus. Boston’s vocal is transcendent, wringing just the right emotions from each line as she regrets leaving some things and celebrates leaving others. Using the romantic departure as a metaphor for the erosion of the best and the worst of the Old South, the Q’s announce their mission with power and clarity.
Pull Back My Spring brings Calder to the mic for a growling exploration of generational tension. With wonderful imagery and nicely crafted similes, he poises his character on the edge of something that could be great, given the chance. Boston turns in a remarkable vocal on Purple Rivers, a nostalgic ode to changing times. Although steeped in Southern themes, it resonates with all the changes in Reagan’s America. Things take a nastier twist with The Knave, a look at a scheming character and the twists of his dark mind. Calder’s vocals are flawless, spitting out his distaste with melodic bile.
Some New Highway wraps up side one with one of the band’s finest moments. Some New Highway mourns a culture being paved over by strip malls while holding out hope that the changes might also grind away some of the worst parts of the past. Boston’s vocal is a revelation, making the most of the vignettes that form the song; Calder adds a risky spoken word bridge that he pulls of with sincerity instead of his usual arch vocalizing. Elsey proves that he was one of the most sadly overlooked guitarists of the 80s; his ringing leads swirl beautifully around Boston’s vocals and his solo is aptly heartbreaking.
After driving down that highway, the Q’s blast apart the remnants of the landscape in Just Property. Boston and Calder share a lead vocal that blends beautifully while Elsey swings a wrecking ball of guitar chords over the driving rhythm. Majestic and devastating at once, it’s a stunning opener to side two. Boston takes the lead on the next pair, a couple of southern gothic stories. Silver Slippers is gorgeous, fragile tale of privilege and crumbling patriarchy with a dark sting. She’s Bringing Down the Poison is a tale of vengeance that could fit in with a compilation of the finest southern short stories. Boston’s fine, nuanced delivery of the pair shows off her talent nicely and brings the characters fully to life. (Bonus points go to Calder for opening Poison with “She’s screaming like a phone off the hook too long.”) Calder returns to the lead for the touching Celestion, a grand love song that shows he can sing with passion of many stripes.
The Q’s major label debut wraps up with the epic Sacrificial Altar, a song of dark enchantment over the radio waves merged with a chorus of aching desire. The mix is heady stuff, and Calder and Boston once again blend their vocals to great effect. Over the course of these ten tracks, the Swimming Pool Q’s show of an amazing musical consistency, blending five talented individuals into a stunningly cohesive unit. They spin out their distinctly southern tales in a way that makes them universal, achieving Calder an Elsey’s original vision with skill and charm. Dark, literate, musical, and fun, it’s a unique slice of early “College Rock” and an overlooked gem of 80s music.
FURTHER LISTENING: The Q’s talent got them some major attention, opening for Devo and the Police while supporting their first album and landing a plum spot supporting Lou Reed on his New Sensations tour after their second album. Despite their talent and initial support, however, they never quite caught the public’s ear. After one more album, Blue Tomorrow, A&M dropped them and Boston left the band. The remaining quartet soldiered on, releasing an EP and two more albums. All of the Q’s work is solid. The Deep End is rougher, but it works well. Blue Tomorrow is more polished than the eponymous disc, for better and for worse. After two decades out of print, the two A&M discs were given their first-ever CD release in one package, a fine way to enjoy the best that this talented quintet had to offer.