Drink, then Swallows

The Portland twosome are building a pop factory in the sky
Photo by James Dean

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When Jon Miller was a boy, his parents pulled off an impressive trick: convincing him there was beauty to be found on the New Jersey Turnpike. Wondering, as any hopeful naïf might, about the strange fogs puffing from roadside refineries, the lad was given a celestial explanation. Those were, he was told, cloud machines.

Miller is old enough now to be a bit more suspicious of Garden State industrial output, but that entrancing image gets new life as the title of his second record with Portland, Ore., duo Swallows. The pair, Miller on drums and pal Em Brownlowe covering vocals and guitar, have been honing a sinewy turn on Pacific Northwest alt-rock since 2003. They call it garage pop, but that term feels too claustrophobic, too sweaty for the sound they develop on their Cloud Machines EP (Church of Girl, 2007). The previous Swallows effort, Me with Trees Towering (Cherchez la Femme Projects, 2006), was fairly sludgy, with guitars thrust forward in the mix and Brownlowe's piercing vocals left to fight it out from the rear. Cloud Machines is no less textural, but it is largely free of such gridlock. Its filthy space is bigger. Put a warehouse or a factory in front of that pop.

But be sure to keep calling it pop. Cloud Machines' intrigue stems from the cohabitation it gins up: cheery American melody making keeps its shape amid angular chord charts and sharp vocal tones. On lead track "Anchors," Brownlowe has moments of channeling Patti Smith, but she's also describing how she'll kick out the jam: "Start to move your feet / Jon's gonna find his beat / And it'll burn the house down." Much like its titular image, which envisions a utopia on dystopia's home turf, the record gets fantasy and disaffection all mingled up.

I asked Miller and Brownlowe about this, and they confirmed that their songs are meant not just as tracks but as ditties. Brownlowe copped to aiming for "memorable and catchy" music: "stick in your head"–type cuts. But on this point, even the band isn't sure where the parody ends and the sincerity begins. Brownlowe related how the most sugary track here, "When You're in Love," initially started as a "mockumentary" dashed off as a joke with her girlfriend. Portland bands, after all, do not sing things like "When you're in love, nothing else matters / When you're in love, you smell the flowers." But then she showed the gag to Miller, and "he wanted to write a verse too," she said.

The vocals are key to Swallows' evolution on Cloud Machines, but equally crucial are Miller's increasingly adventurous drums. The group's earlier songs hint at impatience with straight-ahead rock rhythms — both "Words of Love" and "Pulsar Heart Attack" from Me with Trees Towering include unorthodox tom-tom rumbles — and tradition has now been pretty thoroughly dismissed. The beats of Swallows 2.0 almost encroach on world music territory, an effect increased by Miller's out-of-order kit and unusual tuning. He claims to have copied his intervals from "Three Blind Mice," but whatever manual he's using, it's effective. On album closer "Language Is Restless," for example, he uses shifty rhythms to leave the melody unmoored and adrift, cleverly scrambling our wish for a quick fix.

All of this sullied pop got me thinking about another image, complementary to those merry smokestacks, that Brownlowe detailed in an e-mail about Swallows' early days. When she and Miller first began playing together — in a "dank practice space in the industrial part of Portland run by a crazy alcoholic stoner" — they cut an EP as Dirty Shirley, a reference to the vodka-laced Shirley Temples that fueled the sessions. Other bands just have beers.

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