“We only do songs about two topics: swimming pools and shopping malls.” – Swimwear Department
It’s been five years since their debut, but Houston’s Swimwear Department – Ned Gayle (bass), Jack Gordon (drums), Matt Graham (vocals), and Jeremy Grisbee (keys) – remains true to their core mission as they announce the release of their sophomore album, The Poolest of the Mall. Recorded with Grammy-winning producer Steve Christensen, every last one of the ten tracks on the album discuss only two topics: swimming pools and shopping malls. Although the themes initially appear whimsical or even trivial on the surface, Swimwear Department skillfully sculpts experiences laden with emotional depth and profundity.
While the album’s title sounds like something from Brian Eno’s discography, this is no ambient soundscape: the band is on a mission. Swimwear Department drags the consumer through the mall’s proverbial “back rooms,” as they explore inexorable march of time and change, the struggles of gender dysphoria, the unraveling of faith, and the earth’s degradation in the face of rampant consumerism.
The music continues to be a product of the band’s chosen constraints–both topical and instrumental. Matt Graham’s often spoken vocals are supported by Ned Gayle’s consistently overdriven bass guitar and Jeremy Grisbee’s pair of synthesizers. Drummer Jack Gordon grounds the often unorthodox sounds to the band’s punk, surf, and new wave influences.
“Several of the new songs are purely silly,” the band insists, and they are right – there are elements of the B-52s, Beastie Boys, The Strokes, and The Dead Milkmen in their sound – but absurdity is still truth, even if it’s coming through a distorted theremin. This daring dance between the sober and the ridiculous is mirrored visually in the album’s cover art – a striking diptych conceived by Rebecca Elise Cook that draws inspiration both from the recorded material and “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch.
The record kickstarts with the spiky tones of We Need A Place, a poignant yearning for the lost freedom once found roaming the corridors of shopping malls. Forgotten is the era where parents would leave their offspring to engage in some unwatched hijinks…and now with the fall of malls, what has become of that once thriving community? This motif resurfaces in Cool Mall Stroll, a lighthearted ditty of a dance trend designed to beat the heat while sauntering past the Orange Julius and Hot Topic.
The record’s repertoire includes a rapid-fire two-minute punk anthem serving as an instructional guide on how to master the “Belly Flop,” paired with an amusing collection of anecdotes highlighting the need for a dedicated…diver at a “Swim-up Bar.”
Clothing Optional extols the virtues of throwing caution to the wind, shedding societal constraints, education, and inhibitions. The eccentric Submarine, bearing a striking resemblance to a forgotten B52s track, humorously suggests the ideal swimsuit as a remedy for gender dysphoria and body dysmorphia. After all, why should these moments of self-realization always be so grave?
Shop! is a brisk melody warning of the terror of unchecked capitalism, drawing parallels with Devo and Robert Hazard’s timeless tune, Escalator of Life. The humour peaks with the hyperbolic declaration that extreme retail therapy could summon the Grim Reaper himself, ascending an escalator, ready to seize the soul of one “Malled to Death.” Yet could he also masquerade as…The Lifeguard? This delightful mix of whimsy and dramatic undertones encapsulates the unique cadence of their craft, culminating with a grandmother’s spirit eternally haunting the corridors of a mall in “Memall.”
Listen to “The Poolest of the Mall” below and order the album here:
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