Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Billy Swan

  • I Can Help [Monument, 1974] B+
  • Rock 'n' Roll Moon [Monument, 1975] B+
  • Billy Swan [Monument, 1976] A-
  • Four [Columbia, 1977] C
  • At His Best [Monument, 1978] A-
  • I'm Into Lovin' You [Epic, 1981] B+
  • The Best of Billy Swan [Epic/Legacy, 1998] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

I Can Help [Monument, 1974]
As befits an unknown one-shot who names his album after his big single--especially a single that advances the rockabilly moment eighteen years--Swan has made an LP with a B side. Only it's one of those B sides thrown together so casually that you find yourself attracted by its elan. Programmed with "I Can Help" are four listenable examples of Swan's detached singing style, all separated from nostalgia by wacky absurdist touches. But on side two the absurdism is provided solely by Swan's willingness to waver perversely off pitch on otherwise straightforward tunes from Elvis Presley, Charlie Rich, and C. Boone, whoever he is. It's only a sloppy quickie, but I like it. B+

Rock 'n' Roll Moon [Monument, 1975]
Any rockabilly who sings "I'm still me and you're still you" as if he's boasting, or trying to, knows the intense nervousness of good old macho in a way Carl Perkins only had nightmares about. Which is why this record is as good as it is, and also why it isn't any better. B+

Billy Swan [Monument, 1976]
Isn't it wonderful? Here's this guy who really doesn't sing very well at all and not only has he now made more good albums than Three Dog Night and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir combined, but they keep getting better. Except maybe for "Blue Suede Shoes" there are no waste cuts this time, and no mediocrities either. The well-meaning optimism and the insecure persona mesh perfectly, and the tunes are pleasurable throughout, whether he stole them from the Sun catalogue or wrote them himself. Inspirational Verse: "Am I Lucky Am I Lucky Son of a Gun." A-

Four [Columbia, 1977]
Last year Swan made the finest rockabilly album of the current revival, songful and manic and ebulliently inadequate, and it didn't sell shit. Now someone seems to have taught him a lesson--this time we get horns and strings that show up his voice and a song about California that is no less drab than most of the others. For everybody's sake, let's hope this doesn't sell shit either. C

At His Best [Monument, 1978]
I'm still glad to own all of his first three albums (and to have filed his more recent stuff in the darkest recesses of my hall). But despite the title recognition moves--his "Don't Be Cruel" grows on me, but he should leave "Shake, Rattle and Roll" to Delbert if not Joe--this is probably the most flattering portrait of this mild-mannered wild-eyed boy you can find. A-

I'm Into Lovin' You [Epic, 1981]
Chagrined with Billy's tendency to cope with maturity by hitting himself over the head with violins, I almost didn't give this a chance, which would have been a shame--it's simple and gentle and steadfastly tuneful, mostly domestic with a few winsome courtship songs to prove he's a Nashville pro. Theme: "Not Far From 40." Still loves rock and roll, he says, and I know just what he means. B+

The Best of Billy Swan [Epic/Legacy, 1998]
He barely happened anyway, and he wouldn't have come close if fellow pros hadn't thought he was a nice guy--e.g. Elvis, e.g. Kris, e.g. Clyde McPhatter, who had a 1962 smash with a ditty Swan wrote in high school. Much later there was the disarming "I Can Help," which went to No. 1 just before "Kung Fu Fighting" in 1974. Like Carl Douglas, this mild-mannered rockabilly then dropped from pop sight, but unlike Douglas, he was prepared to pursue his muse where he always had, twixt Memphis and Nashville. Numerous minor country hits ensued, along with at least four albums whose big heart and simple tunes showed up Nashville careerists and "outlaws" for the smarm merchants they were. With his adenoidal pitch and nice guy's morality, he wouldn't stand a chance in Nashville today. With his nice guy's empathy, he wouldn't cut much of a figure in alt-country either. Celebrate his moment. A-