At just under 40 minutes, Patrick Sweany's new full-length Close to the Floor plays like a classic soul-blues record — Sweany makes his blues signify, and writes soul-inflected tunes that aren't pastiches. Produced by Luella and the Sun guitarist Joe McMahan at his Wow and Flutter Studio in Nashville, Close to the Floor is a record of odd urgency, which may have something to do with its genesis as one of the last projects McMahan completed before a fire gutted his studio in June (see story above). Sweany is a modern bluesman with a songwriting knack — a rare combination.
Close to the Floor is a watershed release for Sweany, who came to Nashville in 2008 to further a career that had already gathered steam. Born in Massillon, Ohio, in 1974, Sweany grew up immersed in soul and blues, and became an accomplished blues guitarist at an early age. Playing around the Midwest — among his bandmates was future Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach — Sweany made a reputation as a guitarist. In fact, Auerbach produced Sweany's 2007 full-length Every Hour Is a Dollar Gone, and the two have remained friends.
"Our association has led to a lot of opportunities," Sweany says of Auerbach. "He was in my band when he was about 20, 21. His dad used to come to our Monday shows, and he brought Dan out. He sat in, and we played Hound Dog Taylor songs on my regular Monday night show."
Close to the Floor finds Sweany recasting early-'60s soul music. "There's a template for those soul records," he says. "There's a reason why they're so great. There are some simple things — in construct and in form — that just seem natural to me, because that's what I've absorbed my entire life."
With McMahan's production complemented by the playing of drummer Jon Radford, bassist Ron Eoff and keyboardist Ryan Norris, Close features blues, soul and Midwestern rock. "Every Night Every Day" begins with a guitar figure before moving into 4/4 time, with Radford playing triplets. It's blues in an Otis Rush mode. Meanwhile, the Bobby Womack-style "Slippin' " is an uncanny re-creation of '60s soul, while "The Island" is a ballad that sounds like Sweany has been listening to soul songwriter Dan Penn. As it transpires, Sweany has been listening to Penn.
"Dan Penn is my favorite songwriter of all time," says Sweany. You can tell: The songs on Close to the Floor find Sweany penning superbly, with his subtext of heartbreak and loss perfectly integrated into his approach.
"His records are pretty organic — there's not a lot of overdubbing or fixing or stuff like that," McMahan says of Sweany. "So we wanted to get the arrangements going down."
Everything goes down perfectly, and Sweany sings about the road and his mother-in-law with equal fervor. Maybe he could stand to lighten up, and cover Ernie K-Doe's Allen Toussaint-penned hit "Mother-in-Law" — or even better, K-Doe's "Lonelyology." But truly, Sweany's sincerity is beautiful, and he shouldn't change a thing.