So let’s get this out of the way first: I preordered the new Swirling Eddies album, The Midget, The Speck and the Molecule, on May 19, 2004.
I know this because I kept the receipt, though I did have to dig it out and check it once the album finally arrived this week. On May 19, 2004, I paid my $20, and waited, having no idea at the time that the record would take three years and two months to complete and ship. It’s the longest I’ve ever waited for an album I’d already paid for, and I admit there were times when I thought this record would never materialize.
Honestly, there are only a few artists I’d do this for, and the Eddies are among them. I don’t know quite how to begin explaining why. I suppose I should begin by explaining who the Swirling Eddies are, and how they came to be.
Once upon a time, there was an amazing spiritual rock band called Daniel Amos, or DA for short. They were led by a mad genius songwriter named Terry Taylor, a guy who has never been content with just one style, or just one identity. In addition to DA, Taylor writes the lion’s share of the songs for the Lost Dogs, kind of a Traveling Wilburys of spiritual pop music. He’s also been known to go by the name Dr. Edward Daniel Taylor when he’s feeling surly.
Anyway, in the 1980s, Daniel Amos released a string of brilliant but low-selling albums, including their Alarma Chronicles, a series of four interlinking records telling a cohesive story. As an encore, they released Darn Floor – Big Bite in 1987, an absolute stunner of an album that still stands as the best of their early work, despite the weird title. Fans praise it now, but in ’87, it was rejected completely by a music industry that didn’t quite grasp it. Plus, it sold terribly.
Upset with the reception his finest set of songs had received, Taylor decided on a bizarre left turn – he’d round up the members of DA and form a new band with them, one that could serve as an outlet for Taylor’s more sarcastic side. This band was the Swirling Eddies, and they released their first album, Let’s Spin, in 1988. The musicians all took on fake names – Taylor called himself Camarillo Eddy, for instance – and the album was a full-on sneer party. But it was nothing when compared with their 1989 opus Outdoor Elvis, which practically oozed anger.
They threw a curve in 1994 with Zoom Daddy, a slinky, strange, long record that, despite being released under the Eddies moniker, included everyone’s real names, and was a musical and lyrical tour de force for Taylor. Even now, 13 years later, it’s still one of his best records, and he has more than 30 to his name. Of course, the Eddies followed that up with Sacred Cows, a free-range slaughter of some of the crappiest Christian music ever recorded, including Amy Grant’s “Baby Baby” and Stryper’s “Sing Along Song.”
And then Taylor put the Eddies to bed. He did his cowboy thing with the Lost Dogs, made a phenomenal new Daniel Amos album in 2001, and seemed to settle into a late-career groove. It was clear that the Eddies were of their time, a manifestation of a younger man’s anger and disappointment. Does the world still need Camarillo Eddy? More to the point, does Terry Taylor still need Camarillo Eddy?
So yeah, even before the three-year wait (and even before we knew what it was called), The Midget, the Speck and the Molecule had a lot to live up to. Admittedly, 90 percent of the population has never heard of the Eddies, or of Terry Taylor, DA, the Lost Dogs, or any of the bands in this fertile little pocket of spiritual pop. But for those of us who know the story, and who’ve been following along, this is an Event. No, this is an EVENT.
I said before that I’ve never waited three years for an album I’d already purchased, and even though I remained patient throughout that time, The Midget had to be worth not only the 11 years since the last Eddies record, but also the small eternity that’s passed since Taylor started putting it together. Sing along if you know this song:
It was worth all that and more.
The Midget, the Speck and the Molecule is extraordinary, easily one of the finest albums of 2007. Far from the comedic knockoff that part of me was dreading, it’s a major work from the mind of Taylor, still one of the sharpest songwriters around when he’s on his game. The album brings together many of Taylor’s styles, and works in a few more he’s never tried. And yet, it is still absolutely a Swirling Eddies album, quirky and funny and a genuine treat to listen to.
The music is terrific, some of it taking from DA and some from the Zoom Daddy sound, but it’s the lyrics that make this record. Taylor is in full glory here, writing about lecherous lotharios, lonely homeless men, despairing old couples, doubt, regret, humility, and even on a couple of occasions, his own band. This is top form Terry Taylor, every line a knockout, and every song inviting you to pick it apart and find the hidden meanings.
The album opens gently with “It All Depends,” and it’s immediately clear that there have been a few changes to the Eddies lineup. Derri Daugherty and Steve Hindalong of the Choir are all over this thing, Daugherty caressing the sweeter numbers with his trademark shimmering guitar, and Hindalong playing exotic percussion as only he can. Fellow Lost Dog Mike Roe is on here too, joining original Eddies Taylor, Jerry Chamberlain and bass god Tim Chandler. (The three best bass players in pop music, as far as I’m concerned, are Paul McCartney, Colin Moulding of XTC, and Tim Chandler.)
And so “It All Depends” whispers to life, a sweet acoustic guitar floating over delicate bongos and a cloud of ambient electrics. It’s a song about perspective – “Faith to move a mountain or a zealot’s wishful thinking, a connoisseur of the finest wines or just another drunkard drinking, one more dirty whistle blower or a conscience coming clean, I suppose it all depends how you look at these things…” But as it goes along, it gets louder and deeper, Taylor inviting you to share his perspective, whatever your own. Perhaps my favorite line in this song: “Some say death is a doornail, some say death is a door…”
The title track comes next, and it’s also surprisingly gentle, strange and beautiful. Taylor uses the title’s imagery to dramatize regret, I think – the old hitchhiker becomes a midget, then a speck, then a molecule in your rear view mirror as you drive away, the image of someone you failed to help haunting the rest of your journey. “Madonna Inn” is, of course, about the famous hotel in California, where each room is a different experience. This one sounds the most like Zoom Daddy, all slithering bass and low, half-spoken vocals. It’s spooky and sexy and terrific.
The album to this point has set such a mood that it’s almost a shame when middling rocker “Giants in the Land” ruins it. But Taylor saves “Giants” by making it perhaps the cleverest song about his own band he’s ever written: “There were giants in the land in those ancient days, there were giants in the land, now they’re in their graves, indifference killed ‘em, it buried the band, all they wanted was a tour and a rental van…” The final verse is almost a message to Taylor’s small group of devoted fans: “In those ancient days, there were giants in the land, you wanna raise them up, you gotta give them a hand…”
Naturally, of course, we did by pre-ordering this album three years ago, which makes the raucous “Medley of Our Hit” all the more inexplicable. This song is possibly the most insular thing I’ve ever seen an artist of Taylor’s stature do – it directly references the message board flap over the pre-orders, and takes people to task for whining about it. Leaving aside whether it’s a good idea for a guy with a few thousand fans to start calling them out by name, the song is a hoot, and it makes a perfect point – this preorder thing is not important, not worth complaining about. It’s just another “piece of hit.”
Or, you know, it all depends on how you look at these things, because some people were genuinely upset over the long wait, and a humble “we’re sorry,” either in song or in the packaging, would have gone a long way. (The entire thanks list: “The Swirling Eddies would like to extend their deepest love and utmost respect to us, the Swirling Eddies.”) Still, this song is exactly the way Camarillo Eddy would react to the controversy, and the lyrics are deceptively self-deprecating: “Take the crank, give it a yank, ‘cause we’re on empty, so fill up our tank with good and plenty, milk and honey and money in the bank…”
I could name and describe each song, since they’re all highlights, but I won’t. (Okay, I do have to bring up “My Cardboard Box,” the tale of a lovestruck homeless guy. This is the funniest thing here, and Taylor’s Camarillo voice – lower and more guttural than his natural one – is perfect for it.) The back half of the album is flawless, playing like a terrific DA album, particularly “Tremolo” and the great “A Humble Man Rises.” (The full line is, “A humble man rises to a new low.”) It’s in the second half that the amps are cranked and the real rock begins, Chandler going to town on his four-string while Taylor screams and flails like a man half his age.
What a great little joke, then, to end this album brimming with ideas with a song about running out of them. “This is the Title” describes its own creation as it goes along: “Can only come up with a few lines, I just sang the lines, these are the lines…” (Providence, Rhode Island band Exhibit A had a similar tune called “This is Where You Put the Title.”) It’s a sweet and funny finish, and the whole thing concludes with a reprise of the title track, Daugherty’s lovely waves of guitar the last thing you hear.
And then you press play again.
I’d have waited twice as long for an album this good. The Midget, the Speck and the Molecule is even better than I’d hoped, a genuine triumph for Terry Taylor, and the best thing he’s contributed to since the last Daniel Amos album in 2001. It’s a prickly, thoughtful, funny, inspiring little disc, one that definitely lives up to the Eddies legacy. But don’t worry – it’s enjoyable even if you’ve never heard of the Eddies or Terry Taylor before.
Get on over to www.danielamos.com and check it out. And while you’re there, try the Lost Dogs’ new one, The Lost Cabin and the Mystery Trees. And then work backwards and pick up everything Taylor and his fellow Dogs have ever done, because it’s all worth hearing.
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I’ve gone on and on about the Eddies, so no Doctor Who update this week. Suffice it to say that I’ve seen a couple more William Hartnell episodes, including the nigh-unwatchable The Web Planet, and I’m itching to talk about them.
Next week, some missives from Maine, including new ones from Rustic Overtones, Twisted Roots, and my friends in Lost on Liftoff.
See you in line Tuesday morning.