Swamp Angels: voicing Vineyard angst


There is a microcommunity of avid Vineyard songwriters and musicians who resist easy categorization. They do not make the rowdy roadhouse raunch, nor the soothing soundtracks of cocktail lounges, nor the dependable patter of street buskers. Instead, these composers — many young, most bred and schooled on the Island — struggle in private, and in deadly earnest, to write music they can play wholeheartedly and honestly. It is in this tradition that The Swamp Angels offer their first, and self-titled, album.

Misfitting is not just part of The Swamp Angels’ identity, it is also a recurring motif. An autobiographical song like drummer-vocalist Andrew Prouty’s “Good Friend of Mine” treats loss so intensely that wallowing in it turns into a kind of perverse celebration. Like other songs on the album, it sketches out a situation, then lets go of words altogether and relies on extended instrumental interludes to tell the rest. The suggestion is that you already know the story because it is universal and timeless — classical, even.

When this music is incubated in the few public venues on Martha’s Vineyard that tolerate experimentation, it draws a following of loyal fans who have gained admission to the music through prolonged exposure or through friendship with band members. To an outsider, the instrument-swamped lyrics and mumbled words can occasionally seem impenetrable. One song whose lyrics ring clear, however, is Adam Howell’s “Cold-Blooded”:

In the world you live in,

There’s something you’re always wishin’

There’s a place you’d rather be

So go on, don’t think of me

No one sold their soul so cheap

No one helped them in the street

There’s a wall of open doors

One that’s closed and you’re kickin’ and screamin’

For it to open up

The leaves begin to fall

Trees they all fall

How could such a small thing

Cause such a mess?

A lush chorus of trumpets, all played by Angel Russell in stunning harmony, follows this verse. “Cold-Blooded” is a nice showcase for the whole band, juxtaposing Niko Ewing’s and Adam Howell’s resonator and electric guitars, Andrew Prouty’s drums and Adam Lipsky’s synthesizer.

Not shy about conveying the experience and random spontaneous sounds of a live performance, the band also boasts a solid grasp of its material, born of years of rehearsal and working together. Those sweet riffs and dazzling ensemble moments are clearly no accident.

Fashionably lo-fi, the recording has a tinny, homemade quality. The sound arrives as if from a distant time and place, like the remains of a late night party left for early risers to find and wonder at. It is not advisable to listen to this CD while driving a car, where uneven dynamics, sudden eruptions and unexpected noises can trigger the brake-pedal reflex.

Does youth alone impart cosmic significance to private pain? Probably not, but youthful intensity certainly helps to put across a song like Andrew Prouty’s “Death,” whose doom-laden male choir is augmented by Milo Silva’s mournful Morin Huur, the two-stringed Mongolian horse-head fiddle familiar to anyone who has ever spoken with Milo.

Probably the strongest songs and lyrics on the album come from Angel Russell, who supplies her own razor-close vocal harmonies on “What Was I Like?”:

What was I like as a child?

Was I incredibly wise?

Did I forget to smile

Like I do now?

What was it like as a child

When you fell down?

You got up lifted off the ground

The way I feel now.

The Swamp Angels have put together a cogent if not entirely coherent experience of ten songs. Their CD is a landmark of sorts, a coming-of-age ritual for a generation of singer-songwriters weaned on the candlewax and velvet curtains of the dear departed Che’s Lounge.

If there are sporadic bows to the eternal heroes of angst-drenched, mopey songsmithing — Elliot Smith, Suzanne Vega and company — it’s completely in keeping with an album where Adam Howell declares:

I’m tired of the ache in

My eyes, the knot in my guts

And I will never be rich

And I will never be a father

‘Cause I know to do no child right

But I can love you.

Next live appearance: Sunday, Feb. 13, at the Oyster Bar Grill, Oak Bluffs.

Swamp Angels CD is available at Alley’s Store, Aboveground Records, and Island Music, or online at sergeantsparrowrecords.com.