Dayton, Ohio, USA will forever be linked with the pop wizardry and heavy drinking of Guided By Voices, but like many Midwestern music scenes during “alternative nation,” the city was teeming with talented bands who have since become footnotes in the shadow of Bob Pollard’s storied career. Dayton was a boom town in that brief period of the mid-90s, where hopes were infinite and the company remained intimate. It was a magical time. Mingling among the booths of Walnut Hills with members of Brainiac, the Breeders, and a myriad other notables was Dave Doughman. Though he was a Florida transplant, the influence of Dayton life on Doughman and his early Swearing at Motorists recordings was apparent, making it sound like the guy had lived there all his life. If Dayton is considered the decade’s ground zero for hometaping, then Postcards from a Drinking Town, a new compilation of Swearing at Motorists’ singles spanning 1996 to 2002, is emblematic of the half-price luxury a solo musician (and a couple of friends) could acquire exploring four-track stardom in the Gem City.
Most of the world caught on to Swearing at Motorist during their Secretly Canadian years. Doughman and whoever was playing drums for him at the time were always self-described as a “two-man Who.” But even if Swearing at Motorists could always command a crowd as if it were Leeds every night, and even if they played the rollicking road duo long before it was fashionable, it’s a claim that unfortunately erases the character of Doughman’s early work. If you love Swearing at Motorists, you need Postcards for the whole story. There’s the ever-present swagger in Doughman’s croon on these spontaneous jams and empty-bottle laments, but also equal parts humility and jumping out-of-bounds. Where Lou Barlow (who I would consider one of Doughman’s contemporaries) relies on constantly crying over spilt beer, Doughman mops it up and grabs another. Sure there are loves lost and low-wage jobs, but there’s also a community of cheap-rent turn-of-the-century homes and like-minded weirdoes to gaze upon. His first complete dispatch, the Tuesday’s Pretzel Night 7-inch, is present here untouched and as-is. The EP’s quick quirky songs (10 in all) are moments in time, a collection of snapshots of the Dayton lifestyle. Some of them just layered voice (“Painfully Obvious”), some just late-night “why not?” epiphanies (“A Drinking Town” and “Plum Island”), some 30-second anthems played acoustically with the heater on (“All the President’s Men” and “Bars Close”), and all of them seemingly created in the confessional. It’s not only a bar crawl of Dayton at that time, it’s Doughman getting back late and pouring into well-placed microphones.
That single’s “Feeling Transparent” already showed a progression. Involving Don Thrasher on drums and Matt Bowman on second guitar, Swearing at Motorists were becoming a band. That trio had some excellent sides including the buoyant “Spin the Bottle” and covers of Great Plains and aforementioned mentors Guided by Voices. But the true heart of Swearing at Motorists has always lay in Doughman’s deeply personal and sonically adventurous home recording experiments. That’s not a slight on the players who have accompanied him at all (should you start anywhere with the band, it’s 2000’s Number Seven Uptown). It’s just with this collection the best part is hearing Doughman shuffling around his four-track, adding in samples, picking strange tunings, pinning musical tacks into a map of greater Montgomery County. Once you finish with Postcards, and you’ve lived a similar semi-charmed kind of life, the nostalgia should be rank in your headphones. Postcards isn’t a death-knell—quite the contrary—Swearing at Motorists have a catalog with Secretly Canadian that doubles what is found here and keeps growing. (The label just announced a new album from the ex-pat.) Consider this the beginning of your favorite new band.
Kevin J. Elliott
MP3: “Feeling Transparent”