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Swearing At Motorists - This Flag Signals Goodbye

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Artist: Swearing At Motorists

Album: This Flag Signals Goodbye

Label: Secretly Canadian

Review date: Jul. 15, 2002

Time was, a two-person band was something of a novelty. After all, how can you make rock with only two sets of hands? Those who did it, like Ween, often specialized in weirdo excursions and were forced to resort to singing along to prerecorded tapes. Very little “straight” rock was attempted with this kind of configuration, since it seemed foolish to forgo the added richness of sound that other instruments and players would offer. Times change, however, and several bands have taken the simplicity of drums/voice/guitar and used it to powerful effect, creating distilled, complex rock music that in no way suffers from its paucity of instrumentation. The Spinanes and The White Stripes are just two examples, and what was once considered a novelty or an act of musical foolishness is now relatively commonplace.

Swearing at Motorists, hailing from Dayton, Ohio, make rock music with only singer Dave Doughman’s guitar and Joseph Siwinski’s drums, rock that drinks from the same well as fellow Daytonites, the Breeders and Guided by Voices. This is a fairly obvious comparison to make, one which SAM have been tagged with before and one which does not entirely do justice to their music. It doesn’t help that the original drummer for the band, Don Thrasher, played with GBV and that Doughman engineered a couple of Robert Pollard’s solo albums. Swearing at Motorists do play short, visceral pop songs, and they occasionally dip into the same Anglophilic influences that inspire Pollard, but on their new release, This Flag Signals Goodbye, Doughman looks to move past the garage-pop sound into more countryish, acoustic material that conjures up an American Midwest full of lonely drinkers and dead-end jobs. This is a good move, since Doughman’s association with GBV will reduce any similar material to derivative status, and to be honest, it’s not his strong suite. Doughman is far better at conjuring up a particular kind of male melancholy, one that speaks quietly in the dark corners of bars, unsure of whether it even wants anyone to hear it.

A couple of years ago, I brought Swearing at Motorists to play at my Vermont college, and for the most part, the show was a disaster. I was too lazy to book a support band, and as a result, only about twenty people showed up. Doughman and then-drummer Thrasher were playing loud, energetic rock to people who had no interest in hearing it. It was like watching Cheap Trick play in an old folks’ home. Within about twenty minutes, everyone but myself and a nerdy fanboy left the room. Doughman, obviously pissed-off at this response after driving all the way to Vermont, began chasing after people who were leaving while playing his guitar, in an attempt, I guess, to annoy them into staying. Dutifully, the band kept playing. I was going through a somewhat depressing time in my life, and my only thought as the “show” wore on was that later on I was going to have to help them pack up their equipment and let them sleep on the couches in my apartment, which would no doubt further strain relations with my high-strung roommate. Then, suddenly, the band began to play a cover of Liz Phair’s “Fuck and Run”, and everything fell into place. They played it slow, stripped down, like mid-period Stones, and the song’s subject matter, suddenly from a male perspective, connected in ways it never had for me before.

Doughman’s talent is singing about people (men) in lonely places, guys who marry their girlfriends because they get them pregnant, guys who can’t see any other choices offered to them than the shitty ones they have to choose from. It’s a worldview that could only be understood by someone from a place like Dayton, OH, whose job market (and air quality) is dominated by the Mead paper plant and where drinking Miller High Life by the case qualifies as a hobby.

Doughman isn’t a hook-writer extraordinaire, but his songs, especially some of the songs on This Flag Signals Goodbye express this Midwestern pathos with an edge of real sadness that resonates throughout the album. Not since John Cougar Mellancamp (I’m being serious) has this part of the country and its people been depicted so well so consistently in song, and as much as it’s interesting to hear about the anxieties of trust-fund kids in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, this is a welcome change. This isn’t a perfect record; sometimes the songwriting meanders aimlessly, and occasionally the lyrics veer into the trite. It’s also a subtle album. Its victories are small, and they require a few listens to be teased out. After a while, though, you can hear Dayton, hear a bar where the pitchers of beer and the Stones tune on the jukebox provide a taste of happiness, a sense that things are all right, even if they’re really not that great. Doughman’s music resides in this place, in this moment of borrowed contentment, when a song plays at just the right time and everything settles into place, erasing past and future and leaving, for just a second, a space we can inhabit where our mistakes are forgotten and all that exists is the moment, full of drunken warmth and buzzing guitars, where anything is still possible and good things are surely yet to come.

By Jason Dungan

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