by Marshall Bowden
Tribute albums are such a mixed bag. They can be fantastic, but for every I’m Your Fan is a collection that has maybe one or two standout tracks and the rest are really just ‘meh.’ But the unreleased (as yet) Swindles tribute album to Squeeze is somewhat different. Actually, it’s a lot different.
It was conceived way back in 2002, and the recording of various Squeeze songs was ongoing for several years. Once producer, engineer, and curator Steve Mandel and The Roots were ensconced at the Tonight Show studio, they had a studio laboratory of sorts, as well as a lot of time and access to some of the dream musical collaborators that they had hoped to include on the Swindles project.
For the last couple of years, a track has been released as a limited-edition Record Store Day single–Elvis Costello’s “Someone Else’s Heart,” in 2018, and this past month saw the release of Bilal and Nikki Jean’s performance of “Black Coffee In Bed”. Altogether six singles have been released from twenty that have been recorded. The record has been finished for a while now, so the question is, when will it become available?
“Someone Else’s Heart” sounds like it was directly inspired by Elvis Costello–it has that certain baroque turn of melody and a chorus that drifts in the lower range of the singer’s voice. On East Side Story, which Costello co-produced, Difford and Tilbrook also display the vocal harmonies that helped inspire the rock press to label them the next Lennon-McCartney. Costello and The Roots give it some psychedelic touches as well as a bit of funky clavinet.
Elvis’ track was recorded in 2011 and was not the first time that Costello and The Roots had played together. That event took place on a 2009 Tonight Show when they teamed up to perform a version of Costello’s song “High Fidelity” that had been arranged by Steve Mandel, and Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson. Mandel co-produced the Costello/Roots album Wise Up Ghost that was released in 2012.
Wise Up Ghost got Mandel some notice, given his credits as co-producer and co-writer. In an Electronic Music profile, Costello praised Mandel for keeping the project on track: “He kept us out of the danger that you can get into when you keep adding. You can lose intensity as you add because the raw thing that you liked initially becomes buried. He’s very good at cutting stuff away. I think he’s done remarkable work.” That assessment seems to apply to the Swindles recordings that have been released so far. Even while Steve Mandel, guest musicians, and various configurations of The Roots alter the rhythmic structure and other elements of Difford and Tilbrook’s songs, horns are added, and studio effects are incorporated, Mandel works hard to make sure the songs themselves remain the focal point. As incredible as some of these performers are, the process that is used to create these new takes on familiar songs does not become the star.
Difford and Tilbrook have proven willing to revisit and reshape their own tunes and their approach to writing new music as well, so it makes sense that they have been fully supportive of the project, going so far as to record a new version of Squeeze’s first U.K. hit “Take Me I’m Yours” featuring Robert Glasper, Questlove, and members of The Roots giving the song a heavy hip hop/rock remix that underscores the doomy quality hidden beneath the surface pop veneer that Squeeze gave the song. Difford and Tilbrook were clearly fond, not only of earlier rock and pop music but also of Motown and other soul labels like Stax, an affinity they share with Costello.
A little over a year ago, in January 2020, Squeeze opened for Hall and Oates at Madison Square Garden and had plans to tour the U.S. with Hall and Oates that summer, playing large outdoor venues. Unfortunately, Covid-19 interfered with those plans, but the fact remains that Squeeze has put in the road work over the years, and that has helped them maintain a solid audience and a currency that many other bands from the New Wave ’80s can’t manage. In a review for Salon, writer Annie Zalenski noted “That Squeeze reliably tours America — and makes sure to hit cities all over the country, not just major markets — goes a long way to explain why they’re enjoying this successful run.”
Another reason is obviously the songs themselves. Difford and Tilbrook have always matched clever wordplay and droll humor with well-composed melodies and some unforgettable hooks. That makes their songs excellent vehicles for artists who are looking to experiment and play with them musically.
Squeeze has always been a quintessentially British band, and that sometimes keeps groups from attaining the success in the U.S. that other groups seem to enjoy. Bands as essential as The Kinks and The Jam have suffered from not being as readily comprehensive to American listeners as those in their homeland. That’s particularly true of some of Squeeze’s earlier hits like “Cool For Cats” and “Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)”, which is about sex, not seafood. But Squeeze has managed relevance in the U.S. through the aforementioned touring and the success of the band’s 1982 greatest hits release Singles–45s and Under, a record and CD release that shows up in many people’s collections from the period. The reverse image of the cover, with Marcus Hewitt’s shaky line drawing, and the album title, Swindles, has been used for the physical Record Store Day singles releases that Yep Roc Records has been releasing, maintaining the recordings’ ties with the band’s original versions.
But the full album has not seen the light of day despite being finished, according to Steve Mandel, who had this to say in a 2016 interview on the podcast My Favorite Albums: “Squeeze tribute album is finished, it has been, and it’s mastered. I’m just still shopping it around seeing if there’s any Squeeze fans in power that can help me get this thing out…For now we’re experimenting with the idea of releasing a couple of songs from it like the Elvis song, and the Roots with guys from to Squeeze singing on it, and Erykah Badu song, and a Todd Rundgren song. So maybe those four.”
To date, Yep Roc has actually released six tracks. Erykah Badu and keyboard player James Poyser front a Soulquarians-style band on a breezy, jazzy version of “Tempted” that emphasizes the song’s sultry qualities. “Black Coffee In Bed” gets an update from neo-soul singer Bilal and vocalist Nikki Jean, retaining its soul sound but adding some rock guitar and a slinky saxophone hook. There are the Costello and Difford/Tilbrook tracks, perhaps a cornerstone of Swindles. Then there is a knockout version of “In Quintessence” by Minutemen leader Mike Watt and his new group The Secondmen (get it?) with organ by Pete Mazich that spirals off into Keith Emerson territory. Finally is Todd Rundgren’s take on “Bang Bang,” a track from the group’s debut album. Though Difford and Tilbrook essentially disowned that album (except “Take Me I’m Yours), Rundgren does a great electropop version of the song, restoring it nicely to the Squeeze songbook.
The B side of each single features the instrumental track from the covered song, giving listeners a chance to hear the loops and the sounds that have been added to create these tracks. And it’s clear that no matter how much cutting and pasting or sampling Steve Mandel and Questlove do, the foundation of each track is based on musicians playing together and listening to each other to create a series of unique versions of Difford. and Tilbrook’s songs.