I tend to associate certain albums with particular seasons or times of year. Mezcal Head is slowly climbing to the top of my "summer" list. It is quite loud and hard-rocking, but it has an uplifting vibe that's just made for driving around on a lazy summer weekend.
That great summery feeling appears in many songs. It's there in that mid-tempo, half-focused guitar line in the verses of "MM Abduction," and in the laid-back vocals in the chorus of "Blowin Cool." Multiple songs (e.g. "Duel" and "Last Train To Satansville") end with protracted instrumental jams. The vocals also have a lot to do with it. Swervedriver originated in the UK, but their sound is very American. The off-key drawl of singer Adam Franklin is very much in line with nineties American alt-rock, and has an anonymous quality that makes it appropriate for any generic sun-baked afternoon, in just about any American setting.
Keep in mind, though, that this laid-back vibe is really a very deliberate, measured aspect of the band's technique. It comes alongside powerful hard rock. That lazy guitar line in the verses of "MM Abduction" effortlessly steps up into a booming chorus. In "Duel," waves of dense, crashing guitars come in and out of the song, alternately drowning out and emphasizing a tremulous rhythm. But if you really want to see what Mezcal Head is all about, listen to "Last Train To Satansville," the unforgettable high point of an already strong first side. It is a long, seven-minute ride on a driving, rolling rhythm with deep, dense bass. The vocals are half-submerged by the guitars, but the lyrics are actually quite dark, describing some kind of murder/outlaw story -- well, that's certainly part of the American mythos, and I guess it shows that the album isn't all about laziness and slacking off. The song ends with an extended guitar jam, but the rhythm is maintained until the end, so the song never quite loses focus.
Swervedriver is the rare band that can get away with an instrumental jam. They have a tight enough rhythmic sense to keep the instrumental parts anchored, and they're good enough musicians to come up with a few interesting flourishes. One of the bonus tracks, "Never Lose That Feeling," is basically a ten-minute jam with some slapdash lyrics thrown over the beginning, but the instrumental part is actually pretty engaging. There's even a saxophone in the mix somewhere; wisely, it stays in the background, augmenting the main rhythm instead of trying for some kind of jazz solo.
The band emerged from the British "shoegazing" scene of the early nineties, which was defined by dense, highly textured layers of distorted guitars. In my opinion, the best albums from that scene were Chrome by Catherine Wheel and My Mind's Eye by The Comsat Angels, but Mezcal Head is certainly a respectable third. In keeping with the album's more American feel, it has a lot more energy and drive, and a much harder edge, than any album by any other shoegazing band. The ebb and flow of the guitars, the way the distortion is scaled up or down within even a single song, holds one's attention so well that the album is able to do without the token slow songs and power ballads. The closest it comes to that is "Duress," which starts off very quiet, but builds up to a massive crescendo over eight minutes.
The second side isn't as good as the first, but "Girl On A Motorbike" and "Duress" keep things going, so that the only sub-par moment on the album comes with the last song, "You Find It Everywhere," which is repetitive and unmemorable. "Never Lose That Feeling" works much better as an ending, even though it's so long. Of the other three bonus tracks, "Cars Converge Over Paris" is a sweet surprise, a low-key, mostly acoustic song with an airy sound. It's a nice comedown after an hour of rocking out. The other two tracks are completely non-descript.
The shoegazing scene is long dead, but its influence can still be heard in music by acts ranging from Deftones to Ladytron. At its best, it had an appeal that could extend to pretty much anyone with a taste for loud electric guitars. I think any fan of American alt-rock would enjoy Mezcal Head.