There’s something enigmatic about Sugarwater, the sophomore LP from local experimental rock trio Swings. Maybe it’s the way lead singer Jamie Finucane slurs and obfuscates his words to the point of complete inscrutability. Maybe it’s the way he sews together his melodies using the same jangly guitar arpeggios over and over again. Or perhaps it’s the way Dan Howard’s drums rumble and tumble with restless energy, rarely content to just be steadfast bedrock. Sugarwater may have inherited its sonic DNA from ’90s slowcore bands like Slint and Bedhead, but the album’s mood is damn near impossible to sum up, making it a strange and exciting piece of music to listen to.
Take standout track “Blood on Seersucker,” for example. There’s a mournful tone to the first part of the song, flanked by Howard’s sparse percussion stomp and Finucane’s half-catatonic vocals. Then, a little more than halfway through, things shift significantly—Finucane begins wailing in falsetto and suddenly all is euphoric and uplifting. When the song contorts itself again, though, it isn’t to trod back over the prior melancholy. We’re left with something weirder and more chaotic: fleeting drone noises, shape-shifting drum fills, and noodly guitar phrases lined with deliberate wrong notes. All of this happens in less than four minutes.
Still, Swings’ first release on esteemed indie label Exploding in Sound is a more polished, refined release than the band’s debut, Detergent Hymns. There are pretty standard pop tracks here—like the hazy, shoegaze ballad “Tiles” and the upbeat, Real Estate–esque “Dust”—that sometimes make you pine for Detergent Hymns’ more unhinged moments, like when the band loses its tempo on “Pale Trinity” and things slowly devolve into free jazz. With “Blood on Seersucker,” there are clearly passages of bedlam on Sugarwater, but Swings’ restraint is palpable.
Because of this commitment to increased cogency, it’s surprising that Finucane’s voice is as warbled and indecipherable as it is, which, for new listeners, can be both alluring and alienating. On the surface, it creates an air of mysterious melancholy—an aesthetic that neatly sums up Sugarwater. You want to plunge deeper into his mind. But with no concrete words to grab onto, Finucane’s world stays obtuse and out of reach. Even more frustrating: The lyrics on Detergent Hymns—which can be accessed on Swings’ Bandcamp page—are frequently brilliant and impressionistic (“Saturate your web spider woven strokes/ Dig for your heart of hearts and I’ll start singing,” Finucane sings on “Close You”). The writing on Sweetwater is probably just as literary and fascinating, and it’s disappointing that people will have to refer to the lyrics sheet to decipher Finucane’s sharp libretto.
Still, the mysterious distance between the band’s intentions and its listeners is infectious—at least at first. According to Sugarwater’s press notes, the trio “knowingly avoids the stifling nostalgia that permeates less memorable acts.” If this is referring to D.C.’s rich history of influential-yet-obscure songwriters—the Travis Morrisons, the Devin Ocampos, the Guy Picciottos—then there’s truth in such a claim: Swings’ sound and approach owes no debt to the city’s past.
At the same time, Swings’ second album is actually a deeply nostalgic record for the way it resists analysis, branding, or categorization. Without any lyrics to guide you, you’re forced to find clarity in things like the album’s erratic chord changes and somersaulting drum breakdowns. You’ll never dive past the surface on Sugarwater, but at least there’s plenty of space to tread.
Swings plays an album-release show at Songbyrd Music House & Record Cafe on Dec. 4.