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Swear and Shake: Maple Ridge

5 July 2012 2,856 views No Comment

By Jessica Bal

One thing needs to be said first: there’s something undeniably warm about Swear and Shake. The quartet makes folk that’s genuine, soulful, and direct. Kari Spieler’s honey tones are complemented by Adam McHeffey’s steady, airy vocals, while Tom Elefante (drums) and Shaun Savage (bass) anchor their harmonies in carefully-crafted rhythms with impressive dynamic range. Their EP from November of 2010, full of songs that are honest and approachable, provided a charming introduction to the New York-based musicians.

Their new release, Maple Ridge, is exactly what a full-length debut should look like. There’s texture to each track, and a range of emotional shades throughout the collection. Swear and Shake has fleshed out the most promising elements of their EP, and the result is a mature, often playful, exploration of their position in indie folk.

The album is named for its hand-picked recording location: a barn in Cambridge, New York, formerly a bed-and-breakfast. True to their pure sound, the barn provided a setting where songs could be formed organically, away from the sterility of a studio with sophisticated tracking equipment. “When you’re playing along to a click track, it’s like playing with a robot, but I was getting to play with my friends,” says Tom Elefante in The Making of Maple Ridge, a short documentary about the recording experience. “[In the barn] I was able to channel almost the feeling of a live show rather than the feeling of [playing] in a basement, playing with robots.”

The documentary, created by Michael Oshins, is an enjoyable peek into the process, one that falls somewhere between silly, serious, and sweet. There’s whistling and meowing snuck in amongst shots of the band experimenting with percussion, deciding when to breathe during song lines, and hanging out in their own idyllic music haven.

The opening track on Maple Ridge, “Marbles,” is one of the most stunning arrangements on the record. It’s been injected with a dose of the collective, celebratory energy of free-spirited ensembles like Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Everything is a little rowdy and undone, with noises that can’t always be placed, and calls and yelps in the backdrop. Jangling banjo, a touch of tin, whistling, clarinet, trombone, and trumpet layer cozily but still suggest spontaneity. With lyrics like “I bought us a piano so our kids would grow up smart,” the song story is woven from idealistic promises and naive hopes. Something in the pretty chaos of the music suggests that these wide-eyed characters might be heading for a messier future than planned, but are hurtling forward anyway.

Those characters do hurtle into tougher territory – even within the space of Maple Ridge. By the next track, Kari utters: “I live in these white walls alone…You said you never loved me, and I know you never will,” offering a lamenting counterpart to wistful, romantic dreams. “Wrecking Ball,” which rests on the punny, immediately contagious chorus line “Oh, my wrecking ball/I reckon I’ll fall for you,” captures love’s bad habits and cycles of self-destruction. “Come and break me,” Kari dares.

“Moving Parts” is notable for equally clever lyrics and a departure in sound. The song is a piano ballad (with some synth thrown in), and Kari’s voice is pop-like at times. The track is more electronic than anything else presented by Swear and Shake, but the shift nicely complements mechanical metaphors (“I will fix your moving parts/I’ll know exactly how you tick”). The band stretches its sound again in “Humming to a Sea Snail,” where vocals echo and yearn (to lyrics like “I’ll be anything you want me to be”), bolstered by simple strumming and intermittent pounds of the bass drum. The band hums together, and there’s a chilling, siren-like quality to their harmonies. Futility permeates the track as Adam sighs: “Nothing came from singing but a tired throat.”

“The Light,” the most spare of all of the songs, takes Maple Ridge back to simplicity. The track feels like a campfire lullaby until the banjo chimes in and Kari moves to a soul-soaked belt. Delicate male-female harmonies and exchanges anchor the “The Light,” keeping it down-to-earth folk. The song serves as a gentle reminder of the album’s heart – a woodsy, upstate barn where four friends immersed themselves in making beautiful noise together.

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