Tourmaline - The Swindle
Record Label: Brontosaurus Records
Release Date: August 12, 2008
The evolution of a band is a most interesting and thought-provoking process. Bands camouflage themselves from disc to disc, sometimes tackling a theme or concept, and other times abandoning a sound for a different direction. Be it acoustic, lo-fi, heavy or raucous, bands constantly change their musical palettes for reasons only known to them. New Jersey's Tourmaline is a band who hasn't released a full album in nearly four years. Though a four-song EP appeared on this very web site, little was known about the band otherwise. While they toured in and around New Jersey sporadically in the last two years, their last full tour was in 2005. When vocalist Matt Rauch opened a music studio in the winter of last year, murmurings began to creep in and in the early part of 2008 the band holed away with producer Joe McGrath (Ryan Adams, Neil Diamond, etc.) and put together an 10-song album entitled The Swindle.
From the very first notes, it's clear that the pop-punk heard on their debut Strange Distress Calls and their four song EP is all but gone. Instead a refined, articulate, seasoned landscape has sprouted. Opening song "Afraid of the Same," is an airy, soulful jaunt that has more of an Otis Redding vibe than that of former touring partners Cute Is What We Aim For. Truthfully the song hits more on a My Morning Jacket level, but the Redding comparison is not without validation. Vocalist Matt Rauch allows his voice to croon along in a haunting, cautionary tone as he sings of trepidation and hope. It's a gorgeous, elegiac track, and while it's a peculiar opening song, it's a credit to the band's development as artists and a surefire winner. The quintet’s maturation comes front and center on title-track "The Swindle," which is a full-on stomper, in which Rauch's vocals howl and the rhythm section crunches. Guitars rattle along, a la Wolfmother, and the melodic ceiling has been shattered. The song is painful, dirty, visceral and an absolute knockout. It's the kind of song bands spend hours trying to create and that these Jersey kinds pull it off so effortlessly is startling.
Rauch and Co. goes for somber and contemplative on the ponderous "Comet Sky," which works well to play up the mid-tempo, keys-heavy presence but doesn't do much as a third track. It's chilly and wistful, but it isn't meaty. Maybe it feels spartan after the mind rape of "The Swindle," but it feels a bit lost in this arrangement, as does fourth song “A.M.” Were it not for its thought-provoking lyrical stance, the song would be lost in the shuffle.
Thankfully fifth song "Levity" is the gem of first half as Rauch sings alongside a beautiful keys arrangement about confusion and dishonesty. “Levity has taken control, function has brought me down.” What on earth he means by this, I haven’t the slightest idea, but the music is elegiac, symphonic, triumphant and nothing short of staggering.
Sixth song “Prepare. Plan. Stay Informed” begins the b-side of the disc, a collection of louder and more pointed arrangements that toss up political ideas and calls to action that is both bold and inspiring. “Prepare.Plan” which draws its name from the slogan on the Department of Homeland Security’s Web site is exactly that, a call to citizens to keep cautious and alert.
Seventh song “Sullivan and Bleecker” is a bit of a chaotic mess that tries its hand at Beatles territory but comes off as clumsy and unfocused. That's not to say that it's a bad song. In fact it trumps all of the band's prior material in a heartbeat, but at this point it feels like the band's trying to do too much. It's noisy, confusing and obtrusive. That the song is based around a New York City murder is probably not a coincidence.
The folksy strut of “Shelter From the Downpour,” is a gorgeous little ditty that provides hope and optimism for people resigned to inaction and indifference. The fact that Matt Rauch sings of not having a voice, is actually more fact than lyrical metaphor. The album was recorded less than a month after Rauch completed vocal surgery. Considering that his vocals are one of the album’s crowning achievements is nothing short of stunning.
"Yesterday Always Forgets" is one of the album's few rock-heavy moments and also one of it's best. A guitar-heavy, drive-with-the-tops-down anthem about making sense of the world and finding clarity, "Yesterday Always Forgets," is sure to be one of Tourmaline's crowning achievements. The bass lines are solid, the drumming is on the point, the guitar lines are nothing short of stellar and Rauch sings with a conviction and an authority that would make Springsteen proud.
Album closer "Come Unity” picks up on the soaring rock vibe of the prior track but transplants the energy and bombast for buoyancy and clarity, asking listeners to seek peace and love. It’s the kind of song that would make The Beatles proud.
Brazen, confident and wholly original The Swindle is a towering achievement and one of the year's bigger surprises. Clearly the time away from touring and the time spent refocusing has served this Jersey quintet well. One can't help but be excited for future shows and albums. For Tourmaline, the future is indeed bright.