The instant gratification aspect of present history has been widely discussed in countless forums. Ours is a time where any band, past or present, is yours for the googling, downloading, cataloging, tagging, and sharing within moments. I would offer this as explanatory evidence for the booming interest in musical archeology and the re-issues that often result from it. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the bands who left behind the fewest clues are often the most fascinating.
Enter Swell Maps, a revered band that even today is masked almost entirely in obscurity. Grainy YouTube footage, impossible-to-find records... and two members (brothers, actually) whose lives ended years apart, but altogether tragically. That I was able to spend an evening with one of them and provide what would be his last-ever recording session remains the freakiest but proudest entry in my 20+ year broadcasting playbook. (Permissions are being sought to make that session available. Sit tight.)
But back to the Maps. I don't know when I first heard them, but I'm guessing it was probably on the Wanna Buy a Bridge? compilation, which I aired religiously as a host on WPRB. That comp was a very critical touchstone for me, as it's where my first exposure to Robert Wyatt, Essential Logic, and the Pop Group came from, leading to my eventual fascination with all things Rough Trade in origin. Swell Maps didn't make an immediate impression on me, though. They seemed incidental to my ears when I was 20. "Read about Seymour" [YouTube] was a transitory stepping stone from one track to another, whereas almost everything else on Wanna Buy a Bridge? was an obvious and immediate game-changer. In hindsight, this seems utterly ridiculous, as "Seymour" isn't just great, it's one of the band's most defining moments.
For whatever reason... age...imaginary wisdom...all that fucking mold I inhaled in PRB's basement... it eventually made sense to me. A girlfriend had copies of the Maps' discography CDs that Mute Records issued in the early 90s, and when not reveling in art-damaged speaker crankers like "Let's Build a Car" or "Full Moon in my Pocket", I found myself increasingly drawn into their more cryptic songs. "Midget Submarine" and "Helicopter Spies" [YouTube] are quite unnerving when listened to through headphones in a dark room, but god damn if they aren't still two of the greatest songs I've ever heard, not to mention instant reminders of where and how my own appreciation for really good art was forged. The Swell Maps were sloppy but somehow totally focused at the same time. Their recordings arrived on now-outdated analog mediums and through primitive distribution channels, but to me they remain the absolute pinnacle of broad and meaningful expression through music. Here's a brilliant clip for "Midget Submarine". So help me god, when the bass kicks in, it's like the sound of distant thunder moaning in the east.
Further your Swell Maps jones here.