Monday, March 23, 2009

Sweep The Leg Johnny - 1995 Demos + Bonus Tracks

(Note: Please see our previous Sweep the Leg Johnny post for a brief disclaimer about the lineup of the band on these recordings and the time period in their history being discussed here.)

When I reminisce on my days with Sweep, I always think of the period immediately after we moved to Chicago from South Bend. By this time, we were refining our sound, making a local name for ourselves, and playing respected venues in the City. I consider this six months the “Golden Age” of Sweep the Leg Johnny. In fairness, I’m sure those members that outlasted me would disagree, and cite their later-released albums as their defining works. But during this period, the band maintained a strong nexus to the South Bend music scene, for we still had many friends at Notre Dame. Although Sweep eventually “outgrew” its South Bend roots, signed with a couple of record labels, and became known as a “Chicago” band, most of the songs on this demo tape were written during our time in South Bend. This is probably the last recorded Sweep work that could claim roots from the South Bend indie rock scene.

Track 1: “Yes, Belmondo, Yes” is a song chronicling Steve’s fandom of Jean Paul Belmondo, a 1960’s French actor and cult icon. This demo starts with Steve’s signature staccato saxophone, followed by the rest of the band mimicking his rhythm. The song continues through a series of rhythmic instrumentation, pauses, starts, stops, and eventually settles into a blues-based groove for the main verses and choruses. Overall, this song is a good representation of the signature Sweep “sound” of this period. Lots of time signature and rhythmic variations mixed with some grooving melody and up and down dynamics.

Track 2: “Abstractions” lulls the listener into a relaxed state before shocking the system with a few bars of distortion. Dynamic variations repeat themselves several times throughout the song before finally settling into a mezzo-forte section that takes us through the song’s end. I always liked the quiet parts where all the instruments are muted except for the percussion. We attempted to simulate the ticking of a clock, and I always thought this made for a terrific ambiance to draw a listener into the song.

Track 3: “Twenty Four”. During the mixing of this song, we were very concerned to get the guitar/bass volume mix just right in the main parts of the song. Of course, no one bothered to go back and listen to the song’s introduction (minor detail overlooked). Regretfully, the guitar is painfully loud in the first moments of the song; however if you make it past this section you are rewarded with a fine mix throughout the rest of the song! In the open chord section immediately after this introduction, I enjoy the echoing interplay between the guitar and the bass. In the midst of everything else being played, these two instruments repeat a phrase back and forth to each other for a pretty cool effect. Sweep also decided to incorporate a couple of tempo changes, at times doing a smooth but dramatic shift from a vivace to an adagio tempo.

Track 4: [Unknown Title]. A plea to readers of this blog: please help us remember the title to this song. While you’re at it, please help me explain what “Action is louder than the catatonic stare of the prime mover, in my shadow...” means. I’m still trying to wrap my brain around that. Lyrical struggles aside; this song has a noticeably darker, more intense feel than the previous songs. The dynamic shifts again take center stage, but are perhaps the most pronounced in this song. The phrases progress from parts almost inaudible to angry and violent distortion. Sostak belts out primordial screams, his timbre removing any doubt of the song’s ferocity. While playing this song, Jim’s limbs and hair would chaotically flail around, abusing all parts of his drum kit. CD painfully communicates his emotional angst, making his guitar roar like a beast and then wail like its wounded victim. The song “unravels” as much as it “ends”... with Chris’ guitar defiantly staggering around the last few measures, unconstrained by any time signature, until nothing is left.

Track 5: “Teach”, as noted earlier, is a song that was previously recorded on Circles All Around. This version breathed some new life into the song with improved equipment, production, and intensity. Although I like both versions of this song, I think the one on this demo tape more closely represents what Sweep sounded like back in the Notre Dame years. This song brings forth a sense of resolution, and appropriately closes this album.

All things considered, I am very fond of the five songs from this demo tape. It’s a shame this was never released as an “official” album, but just a demo. These were the last tracks I personally recorded with Sweep the Leg Johnny, and I will always take away great memories of writing, practicing, and performing these songs with the band. I hope you enjoy these songs also.

As a bonus to those patient enough to make it all the way though my creative (and verbose) musings, I present to you two Sweep the Leg Johnny “oldies”—out of the vault for you listening pleasure. I don’t think the band has played these songs live since 1995 or ‘96.

Track 6: The first of these gems is actually a holdover from Victoria’s Real Secret titled, “First Steps.” This song is proof that it is, in fact, possible to put way too much reverb on a saxophone within a punk-ska song. It’s a straight forward power-pop-punk song that was always fun as hell to play, and never failed to whip the crowds into a fervent mosh pit. For the fun factor alone, this song was one of my favorites. I’m not sure we ever played it live in Chicago, as our style rather quickly diverged from this genre. This was unfortunate, because this song was very accessible to a first time audience, and always had an extremely positive response.

Track 7: The second song, “Disquiet,” was off the Notre Dame campus compilation, sfumato. This was recorded at Miami Street Studios in South Bend, and contains the typical “compressed” production that we got used to from this studio. Not that it was a bad studio—quite the contrary, John turned out some tremendous professional quality work. I believe, however, he lacked experience with the indie-punk, garage band sound (distortion good, compression bad). It is a fairly straightforward song with the exception of some varied time signatures. It packs in lots of distortion and feedback, in an otherwise pretty “smooth” or “relaxing” song (well... as relaxing as Sweep got). I think the slow cadence of the lyrics really contributed to this feel. As the band wrote newer material, this song soon fell out of our standard rotation. I’m not sure it was really that incongruous to our new material; perhaps it was more a case that this song just ceased to excite us after a while. In any event, it’s a fun listen for those that remember our live shows at Notre Dame... I hope you recognize it.

--Wil Freve



theodore said...

images courtesy of alisha! ;) thanks!!

Julie McCoy said...

i was JUST about to come in and protest.
nice job!
and yay for first steps!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Nice work Wil. Although I remember going to the studio and recording these songs, I don't remember them. In other words, if I had heard these songs on the radio instead of downloading them from "South Bend Power Nineties", I would not have recognized them. This lack of memory is starting to scare me and it's making me feel (shudder)old. I will listen to them some more and hopefully a few more cobwebs will shake loose. Thanks again.


Mike L. said...

Listening to this really makes me hungry for a burrito from Arandas (sp?) near the old Sweep townhouse in Chicago.

Gregor said...

Hey, just in case you haven't found out yet - Track 4: [Unknown Title] is obviously the demo version of a song called "Welter" which was released on "Zum Audio Vol. 1" compilation in a brilliant version and recording. I really enjoyed reading your STLJ related blog posts! they have been my favourite band for over 10 years now. so, thanks for all the info, thoughts and rare material!

Gregor from Germany

theodore said...

thanks, gregor!