If you were a successful BBC radio DJ with not one but two regular shows; if you assembled international tributes to Bob Dylan; if you worked as a musical director for film and you curated annual festival events like the Roaming Roots Revue then I'd have thought you might want a little rest from music on your days off. This is certainly not true of Roddy Hart who, on top of all of the above, has been touring and making music of his own since 2007.
Swithering is his second release with six-piece band The Lonesome Fire and, put simply, it's a monster of an album, full of epic, arena-bound songs that are both daringly arranged and beautifully recorded. There is no ballad in sight, nor is there the slightest whiff of any chart-charming cheese. Swithering is a big, serious rock record.
There's a long line of legendary Celtic and Irish influences apparent in the intelligent rock on offer here and the snarl of Big Country; the searing guitars of U2; the warmth of Deacon Blue and the ragged whisperings of The Waterboys all leave their traces in the record's twelve ambitious tracks. Post-millennial icons like Keane, Biffy Clyro and The Killers are clearly influences too and I guess this is Hart's schooling in rock radio laid bare.
Exquisitely produced by the band, along with fellow Scot Paul Savage, the record kicks off with ‘Tiny Miracles’ which is all rolling drums, ever-building guitars and BVs recorded in a cave. It’s a fairly innocuous opening but allows you to adjust to the sonic hugeness of things. Then the more upbeat ‘Berlin’ notches things up a gear with more brittle guitars and even wider sprawling vocals. The song's curious two-tone outro is a quirk that won't be everyone's bag but, for me, ‘Berlin’ is a straight-from-the-fridge classic. Its instant catchiness is somehow upstaged, however, by the super-infectious ‘Low Lights’, a rock song that has all the makings of a huge dancefloor hit. The bouncy bass riff, keyboard blips and semi-spoken paranoid lyrics bring to mind David Byrne at his mad genius best. Surely another hit single in-waiting.
The eerie octave vocals and soft-beaten delay-soaked drums of 'No Monsters' are well suited to a song about conquering inner demons. The song's sinister setup gives way to a euphoric second half and it's a thing of weep-inducing beauty, capable of shattering the hardest of hearts into millions of pieces. The much gentler ‘Violet’, with its mysteriously distant eponymous female muse, displays a more intimate side and reveals the warmth of Hart’s vocal which is often reminiscent of Noah and the Whale’s Charlie Fink.
‘Dreamt You Were Mine’, on the other hand, is nothing short of schizophrenic; the giant hooky chorus of the song’s first half sidestepping, via a cacophonous guitar solo into ethereal meandering. It’s a good reflection of the records title (swithering is a Scottish word meaning to be uncertain as to which course of action to choose) and is perfect for listeners who like their music with weighty curveballs. ‘Faint Echo of Loneliness’ feels saner and the restrained piano and drums of the verses provide a contrast to the gargantuan tower of vocals, guitars and keyboards that make up the choruses. Did I already mention that this record sounds totally, massively huge?
There’s a nod to Canadian rockers Our Lady Peace in the superbly crashing anthem ‘In the Arms of California’ before the record finally calms the heck down with the semi-crooned waltz of ‘I Thought I Could Change Your Mind’, hotly followed by the frenetic riffing and blistering drums of ‘Strange Addictions’ which see normal service resuming as the record’s final tracks approach. ‘Sliding’ is relaxed but somehow still urgent - on a record this chock full of ideas and layers of sound, the naked, slow-strummed guitar chords that open the song feel something like redemption - and for a reason I can’t put my finger on, this is my favourite song on the album. The cinematic closer ‘We’re The Immortals,’ with its repeated outro of “How did we get here?/We have come so very far/And it’s bigger than we are” sums it all up perfectly. The band have, after all, taken us (and themselves) on an unforgettable journey and well may they marvel at quite how they managed to build something of Swithering’s scale and vision.
Roddy Hart and The Lonesome Fire clearly have generations of rock tradition coursing through their veins but (to muddle metaphors) their fingers remain on the pulse of the musical here-and-now. As a result, Swithering is a grandiose, vital, classic and thoroughly modern creation. Clear out an enormous room in your head and fill it with this record. You won’t regret it.
Review by Rich Barnard.