Seth Swirsky’s Watercolor Day: Analog Candy For The Digital Age
Some albums stay with you for a long time. Those are the one you keep coming back to. Sometimes the lyrics speak to you. Sometimes it’s the sound. Sometimes the melodies swirl around in your head for days without prompting.
One such record for me is Seth Swirsky’s 2010 release Watercolor Day. Swirsky worked previously in the music business as a staff songwriter at Chappell Music, Warner-Chappell Music and EMI Music, where he penned songs recorded by Rufus Wainwright, Al Green, and Smokey Robinson, among others. He co-wrote “Tell It To My Heart,” a big hit for Taylor Dayne back in 1987.
As a performer, Swirsky describes his sound as “old school.” It certainly is. Its a magical trip back in time to the pure pop stylings of the 1960s, where an idea, catchy melodies, gorgeous multi-part harmonies, and two-and-a-half minutes of vinyl could yield glorious results.
Although the Beatles are an obvious influence on Swirsky’s solo work, and on the two records released by his band, The Red Button, Watercolor Day feels much more like the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Trumpets, french horns, violas, cellos, oboes and trombones appear seemingly out of nowhere, but nevertheless fit perfectly in the mix and saturate the sound with texture. Swirsky also makes use of the pre-synthesizer Mellotron, an “electro-mechanical, polyphonic tape replay keyboard originally developed and built in Birmingham, England, in the early 1960s.” Or, in other words, a Mellotron uses magnetic tape to coax the sound of virtually any instrument out of a basic keyboard. It was was utilized to great effect on numerous songs in the psychedelic era. Watercolor Day is analog candy for the digital age.
And the candy is attuned to the rhythm of seasons. Much of Watercolor Day evokes the easy, breezy days of summer at the beach. The title song, however, is about a “colder” December day: “It’s a watercolor day/Skies of blue have turned to grey/Her green eyes mix with the sunrise/As the butterflies melt away”:
Summer returns, though, on the next song, “Summer In Her Hair,” which, of course, is all about a girl who’s “got the summer in her long, blond hair.” “4 O’Clock Sun” is a short instrumental with harmonizing voices that feels like a warm late-afternoon at the beach as it starts to fade toward night. Full-circle is achieved by the last song, “Amen,” an ode to the return of autumn, red leaves, bare trees, the rain and an eternal caring hand. The watercolor days of December will soon return.
If all of this sounds like a cloyingly sweet confection devoid of substance, it’s not. The songs are richly detailed soundscapes about, well, life. And Swirsky often gets a phrase down just right. The minor key “Living Room” begins “Empty picture frame, it used to have a photograph/Of her smiling.” We’ve all been there before, in one way or the other. On “She’s Doing Fine,” he sings “she’s doing fine, that’s what her note said/she’s doing fine, she left it on the bed.” More basic truth. His tribute to Harry Nilsson, “(I Never Knew You) Harry” begins “I heard you back in ‘69/’Everybody’s Talkin’ was playing all the time.”
He even attempts a kind of mini-Side 2 of Abbey Road on “I’m Just Sayin,’” a medley of some of the prior songs on Watercolor Day. It also closes with some seriously Beatleseque guitars. “The coda at the end of the album is something that Sir Paul McCartney has done brilliantly over the years and I wanted to attempt it.,” Swirsky says on his website.
And he certainly achieved it. Watercolor Day is one of the best albums of the past decade. It has a handmade, craftsman-like quality that you don’t get very often in these days of processed beats and auto-tuned voices. Not a moment is wasted in the 18 hook-laden songs, some of which clock in at less than two minutes long. Why create clutter? Its far better to get in, get out and leave a lasting footprint on the mind of the listener. That’s exactly what Watercolor Day does.
[Originally published on the defunct MT Weekly]