Swainn, an Arizona four piece also known as Cockswain, first emerged on the indie scene six years ago. Their 2015 debut release Seamus earned considerable attention for the band and they followed it up with an even stronger second release, 2017’s For the Whiskey. One of the chief attractions of Celtic rock, as it is normally called, for me is the flexibility of its formula. Talented songwriters and musicians working in this vein can utilize the sub-genre’s devices in multiple ways. They are far from purists, however, and the confluence of several sounds merges seamlessly in an unified whole. If you love Celtic music, bluegrass influences such as banjo, rock, and punk, you’ll find a lot to love on Swainn’s Under a Willow Tree.
The vigorous connection shared by the guitar, banjo, and fiddle are the musical heart of the songs. It is apparent from the first track “Voices” that they live and die with this trio. Mandy, the band’s fiddle wizard, contributes a tremendous amount to the band’s sound, often leading the way with either banjo or guitar accompanying her. They favor uptempo tracks and this is no exception. It likewise spotlights the band’s wont for recording socially relevant material.
It risks a small amount of preachiness. It is one thing when Swainn layers objective fact into the lyric, another when the words are laying down judgment calls. It is, however, in keeping with the punk echoes rife throughout the release. Tracks such as “Bag of Bones”, however, follow similar musical directions while providing us with a distinctly different lyrical bent. The point of view heard in “Bag of Bones” is dark, without question, but more conciliatory. Swainn’s predilection for big choruses has an unifying quality during some tracks and this is a prime example.
“In the Morning” is another pedal to the metal Celtic rocker with a ferocious backbeat driving the song. The drums are obviously positioned to stand out and Brian’s muscular impact on the song’s development gives it an authoritative stomp. Another of the album’s socially conscious tracks, “Take Action”, never flirts with heavy-handed rhetoric and has a rousing spirit communicated by both the vocals and music. It’s another guaranteed live favorite in the making.
Some listeners, as they go deeper into the album, may confront an conundrum. There’s no doubt that Swainn deliver the musical good time after time and their skills are sharpened to a fine edge. It is apparent, as well, that there’s a sameness to the release many listeners may find wearisome. If you evaluate Under a Willow Tree by the standards of its genre, it is an unmitigated success. Swainn, whatever their exposure, is a first-division outfit performing this sort of music.
However, evaluated by broader standards, the band limits themselves too much. Many of the songs are built around interchangeable tempos. The saving grace of the release is its lyrical content, musicianship, and the occasional variation Swainn pursues. Some will revel in this album, feeding off its energy, while others, however, will find it an entirely too one note affair. The finale “Another Drinking Song” is a nod in the right direction as it clearly winks at the band’s own music and reputation. It puts an emphatic exclamation point on the release despite following the same template. No matter the final judgment, Swainn’s Under a Willow Tree sparks and crackles with the same intelligence defining their past work.