March 29, 2021. This Bitter Earth, Veronica Swift’s sophomore release from Mack Avenue Records, takes on issues of weighty social concern. Most everyone’s doing that now, it seems—and, hey, that’s probably a good thing. But the reason this album succeeds is because Swift was a preeminent vocal stylist before and still is.
Her musicality and mastery of the idiom’s idiosyncrasies at not even 27 years old is preternatural. Her reverence for this music’s history and her respect for its composers and lyricists asserts itself with every old show tune or standard she dusts off and makes devastatingly hip again (or for the first time).
Chops are chops, and she’s got them in spades—one listen to “You’re the Dangerous Type,” and you’ll quickly learn all you need to about Swift’s sheer athleticism as a vocalist.
What separates Swift is the same thing that separates that heady point guard you’ll invariably hear the announcers gushing over during every year’s NCAA basketball tournament telecast. “Son of a coach, just knows how to play the game.” And so it is with Swift: this daughter of jazz musicians (the late pianist Hod O’Brien and vocalist Stephanie Nakasian) just knows how to play...because, like that point guard, it’s been woven into the fabric of her personhood from the time she was a toddler. I don’t know her personally, but you can just tell.
These tunes—even the obscure ones, perhaps especially the more obscure ones—are like another appendage or, better yet, a sibling. When they’re ludicrous and laughably out of touch with today’s sensitivities and sensibilities—see her treatment of Bye Bye Birdie’s “How Lovely to be a Woman” here—Swift’s first to lean hard into a bitingly satirical take. And still, there’s a sweet kind of eye-rolling, familial-style love Swift has even for an outmoded old chestnut like “How Lovely.” It’s both protective and maximally effective as satire, very much a nobody-makes-fun-of-my-brother-but me sort of thing. And here, sister knows all the right buttons to push.
In taking on sexism (“How Lovely”), racism and xenophobia (“You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”), domestic violence (“He Hit Me [And it Felt Like a Kiss]), date rape (“Trust in Me”), and the power of the media to sow disinformation (“The Sports Page”), Swift’s serious without being sanctimonious. Art should reflect the times we live in without the artist inserting themselves at every opportunity. And Swift navigates that often trickier-than-it-seems dilemma like a real pro.
“I don’t take any political stances,” Swift says in the album’s press release. “I’m very clear with my audience that as an artist I address certain issues as an outsider looking in.”
The activist crowd may bristle at this, but there’s something refreshing about a performer like Swift whose intellect is thoroughly modern and whose soul is vintage show business.
Always exceedingly thoughtful with song selections, Swift’s tendency towards Broadway B-sides — “How Lovely,” South Pacific’s “Carefully Taught,” and “As Long as He Needs Me,” from Oliver! — is delightfully nerdy for someone so outwardly stylish. At the same time, she charges into pillars of the American Songbook like “Getting to Know You” and “The Man I Love” like someone who courts the role of Gypsy’s Mama Rose and is totally undeterred by the inevitable comparisons to leading ladies of productions past.
Pianist Emmet Cohen is Swift’s musical soulmate; it’s like they share a brain. Everything I’ve said about Swift’s approach and sensibility could be said to apply to Cohen. He can low-key it as a sensitive accompanist, as on the title track, “As Long as He Needs Me,” and “The Man I Love” but is most charming as the clever, referential, theatrical maximalist you hear on “How Lovely” or “Getting to Know You”— or the one who you can almost hear smirking as he playfully quotes “There’s a Small Hotel” while soloing on “You’re the Dangerous Type.”
It’s on Swift’s treatment of this latter tune—written by the late vocalist, pianist, prolific songwriter, and personal friend Bob Dorough— that she’s at her spectacular, intoxicating, Anita O’Day-like best. This is Swift’s native element, showcasing her scatting prowess and how expertly she works with instrumentalists. Her interplay with alto saxophonist Aaron Johnson here is special; Swift is so rhythmically precise, her pitch so pinpoint, that it almost presents more like two instrumentalists working together. Everything about her boundless style that leaves listeners slack-jawed is on display here.
Bryan Carter (drums) and Yasushi Nakamura (bass) join Cohen in the rhythm section and are as strong a core group as you’d expect Mack Avenue to put together for a headliner of Swift’s star power. Johnson, the woodwinder, can also be heard on flute on “Trust in Me,” possibly the first tune born from a Disney production—The Jungle Book— to be recast as a date-rape allegory. And guitarist Armand Hirsch joins on a pair of tunes that prove particularly memorable.
First, he teams with just Swift on a haunting take of “He Hit Me,” the infamous cult classic that’s presented here with the dark country edge reminiscent of a singer-songwriter of Bobbie Gentry-like vintage. Then, he combines with a string quartet and two schoolkids’ choirs (all arranged by Steven Feifke) to lend the album’s closer, “Sing,” the kind of emotional amplification that stage actors receive from pit orchestras and chorus lines.
Which is interesting because for as many Broadway tunes as Swift covers here, it’s this one—a cover of the Dresden Dolls’ emo-ish, alt-rock ballad— that sounds most like what Broadway tunes sound like today. Perhaps we’ll be lucky enough to one day see Ms. Swift perform this one in a different context; she’s got all the tools to be a star there, too.
Women’s History Month on WRTI is supported by Temple University, which celebrates the legacy of Agnes Berry Montier, class of 1912, and the first Black woman to earn a medical degree from Temple.