First thing: some caveats:
1. I have never written a review for a band before, so I imagine this is going to be clunky. Don’t be surprised if you find some flowery language in here, since most reviews are like that I’m using some professional people as models.
2. I don’t know much about music. I mean, I played percussion in middle school, high school, and college, but that consisted mainly of beating things with other things. So you won’t find lots of music theory and explanation in here. It’s just me hocking a friend’s album.
3. That’s right – I have known Justin Lacy since we were Boy Scouts together, so I just want everyone to know that going into this thing. I think I have enough distance to be unbiased, though. Here we go.
According to their website, Justin Lacy and the Swimming Machine started when Mr. Lacy and a group of friends played together at one of those “anything goes” open mics, performing some songs that Lacy had written. They did strange things: substituting a tap dancer for snare, using muted trumpets in tandem with synths and electric guitar, and even employing upright bass and whistling into their songs. The group enjoyed playing together, and so continued. However, this band is not your conventional band. Its main members (numbering around 8ish), are joined by various “moving parts,” making the total number of instrumentalists and vocalists connected with the band a cool 18. It is very much a machine, and as a person interested in words and their usages I find it remarkable that the band’s name manages to capture both its unusual nature and musical vibe. You feel, listening to them, that you are moving through a form of audial water: lively and cool and sort of casual, but at the same time rife with musical rip currents, little twists and inversions of the expected sounds that keep the songs tirelessly interesting. But that’s enough about the band itself. I’ve already started to get into the music. For more information on the Swimming Machine’s formation and history, click on this picture I have conveniently placed below.
THE SOUND OF THE MUSIC
Justin Lacy and the Swimming Machine sound as strange and amazing as their backstory would suggest. Lacy’s vocals are rough and husky, and remind me of Johnny Cash in a lot of ways. Hold on, I know that’s high praise, but I think he sort of pulls back on the beat as he sings, creating a Cash-like slowness that blends nicely with the upbeat music behind him. His lyrics help create a connection with the mainstream folk and bluegrass music that is taking people by storm right now (especially in songs like Bottom Feeder that showcase a man dealing with raw emotion). And let me just spend a few seconds here talking about the ladies in this group. Led by core member Sophie Amelkin and including vocalists Christa Faison, Whitney Lanier, and Heather Bobeck, the female members of the group are, in my opinion, a huge part in giving the songs their edginess. The backup vocals provided by these ladies remind me of (and I hope they take this as a compliment, because it is) my favorite soundtrack of all time: the soundtrack to the Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater video game. They give the group a fifties-esque backup singer Motown vibe at certain times, further adding to the musical dynamism and eclecticism of the Swimming Machine. Take a listen to In Chiaroscuro or Bottom Feeder and you’ll know immediately what I’m talking about. You’ll fall in love with these voices.
Okay, now for the instruments. Like I said in the band bio section, the group has a lot of strange instrumentation going on. But for me, this odd assortment of sounds and melodies rarely detracts from the overall feel of the song. I don’t think I was ever distracted by the choice of instruments. Rather, new sounds would emerge and felt strangely right, like I should have known somehow that they were coming round the bend. The muted trumpet, the mandolin, the synths and whistling. It all melds together into an apt feeling that you’ve stumbled upon, well, a swimming machine moving deliberately and wetly through the ocean. I felt at points a definite steampunkiness. All metal and rubber and perpetual motion. You get me? No? Then perhaps you should check the band out.
CHECKING THE BAND OUT
Any of this sound interesting to you? Good. Perhaps you’d like to saunter over to the band’s website and purchase their debut album, Overgrown. It’s available in three ways: a name-your-own-price digital copy, a $9 CD, and a $15 Limited Edition 12-inch Vinyl. Oh, and did I mention that these guys are mostly UNC-Wilmington graduates from the school’s music program? And that the album art is by a Wilmington artist named Kate Winchell (which, by the way, the album art is absolutely perfect)? So go out and support a local, NC-based band making great music and art and giving back to the community. Do it.