Jen Swartout: Sometimes
Local free verse, free jazz, and not-quite-free folk
In the singer/songwriter world, a track sung in French can be an absolute suckerpunch. Maybe it has something to do with forcing you to listen to the voice before the lyrics, maybe just sheer mystery, but, most likely, it's just that French is a sexy language, the way it runs roughly through the top of the throat and fills out the cheeks and lips. Jen Swartout sucks the air out of our lungs with it about halfway through her Sometimes album with "La Grande Fin," remarkable for just how well she stays within her Margo-Timmons-meets-Natalie-Merchant songstress program.
And Swartout has had plenty of time to develop that program, descending from wildly diverse outfits such as punk/rock outfit Sir Rabbit, the new-funkish Birdbath, and Baltimore long-timers (as in, the original Floristree occupants) the Penny Regime, a local indie-rock standby.
The resulting country and western-tinged songs, while not terribly groundbreaking, are lovely at turns. It's mostly about her voice-the lyrics are mostly coffeehouse love/loss poetry-an exceedingly powerful instrument that, when she lets it loose ("Bridge to Nowhere"), turns into a bit of a bulldozer along the lines of certain Lilith Fair-worsts who will go unmentioned here. But, on a track like "Maybe Not," where it sounds like she's just barely holding it down, it travels a seductive midrange like she wrote the map for it. When it's put in harmony-mostly with Brian Potts of John Doering and Manganese Blue-however subtle, that voice turns truly magnificent. The album's close ("Dirty") is the finest moment: Over and over, Swartout sings "round as these are/ they'll spin all night," joined eventually by Potts and what sounds like herself dubbed in into a Southern folk choral.