In the few short years I’ve lived in the area and reviewed local music, I can’t think of a season in which more top-shelf albums have been released in such quick succession than this spring. Between Rosary Beard’s enchanting debut, Eastbound Jesus’ rowdy follow-up and mature, fully realized offerings from both Alta Mira and the Parlor, there seems to be a generation of local musicians who are all hitting their stride together and creating the best work of their careers.
File Swamp Baby’s For Baby’s Babies in this elite class. Given proper studio treatment, Nick Matulis’ hushed folk tunes and gangs-all-here singalongs open into sonic playthings with his band and a fleet of guests stacking the spare songs tall with tiny phrases, rhythms and textures. “I’m a saint/I’m a little boy,” Matulis sings on the opener “Mirror of Lavender,” echoed by the band singing in ragtag children’s-choir fashion. “And you are a towering telephone-book throne.” While the band’s prior records would have kept the song within the strummy acoustic framework, this time the whole thing spills open in the bridge with a blippy digital oom-pah band panned in from various directions on spacy tape loops. It’s 45 seconds of Nintendo psychedelia, something akin to the Mario Brothers guesting on the Grateful Dead’s Anthem of the Sun, before Matulis delicately brings the whole thing back to the chorus.
The secret weapon in Swamp Baby’s ranks is, no doubt, engineer Frank Moscowitz, whose recording exploits have lately been covered at some length in these pages, and whose touch here gives the record its framework and ambience. Ballads like “Love Wants to Stay” (the title for which appeared to guitarist Mike Hotter in a dream, spoken by Rev. Al Sharpton) are rendered airy and atmospheric with a touch of analog hiss, verbed-out piano and meandering electric guitar. This mood predominates on the record, rendering many of Matulis’ breathy tunes lullabys befitting the title, yet “Prince Rachmed” roars out of the album’s gut with fuzzed guitars and bombastic drumming (not to mention a Beck-style falsetto breakdown), and “The Sad Truth About Fun” skates out on a Casio pre-set clave rhythm to receive a flurry of handclaps, orchestral strings, collagist background vocals and a slightly demonic baby’s laugh.
The record as a whole seems to address the claim made with that track title. The sad truth is that fun can feel frivolous in a moment of history when everything seems to be crumbling. “No sense in having fun until all the wars are done,” Matulis sings. “If you value your friends more than your job, well, you don’t care about the future.” We can feel grateful that Swamp Baby, along with Albany’s vibrant present music scene, have soundly rejected their own wry advice.