In the Swimming Pool Q's song "The Bells Ring," a woman sits in the green lights of a Trailways bus parked at the depot of a small southern town. She desperately wants to leave her claustrophobic surroundings, but even as the bus brakes hiss, the bells of a clapboard church stir up all her fonder memories of her close-knit hometown.
"That conflict is in our songs a lot," says Jeff Calder, the quintet's chief songwriter. "Both workwise and musicwise, we make you feel that conflict of wanting to leave but not being able to leave and not knowing why. I have so many friends who settled down into a real domestic life in small towns, but I'm just too wild for that -- I've got to roll."
After seven years of bouncing around the South, the Swimming Pool Q's are finally breaking out into the larger world. Their first major-label album, last year's "The Swimming Pool Q's" (A&M), has been popping up on numerous Top 10 lists, and it led to a national tour with Lou Reed that came to Washington last October. The Q's will headline their own show at the 9:30 club on Thursday.
The band's brightly melodic neo-folk-rock sound is best exemplified by "Some New Highway." Anne Richmond Boston's bell-toned soprano and Calder's raspy tenor warn that leaving one's home by way of a new interstate won't necessarily cut through one's frustrations. Bob Elsey's ringing lead guitar becomes a third voice, expressing a yearning for someplace new.
"That song was inspired by a Eudora Welty short story, 'The Optimist's Daughter,' " Calder says. "The song really has very little to do with the story -- I was just struck by a certain passage that conjured up a mood and images that I tapped into. I like to take everyday images, like rusted-out cars and cheap motels, and place them in another realm . . .
"Our band plays in a lot of small southern towns, and visiting those towns really jars my childhood memories. Those towns are lovely, very bucolic, but they can also be very stifling for someone like me, who has an adventure streak. Now I can appreciate the simple life there because I don't feel trapped by it. I travel everywhere I want now."
Calder, 33, grew up in Charleston, S.C. ("like living in the 18th century with a television and refrigerator"), and Lakeland, Fla. When he graduated from the University of Florida in 1973, he heeded teacher Harry Crews' advice and wrote short stories about his own background. While trying to become another Welty or Flannery O'Connor, Calder made money writing about music for local papers. He befriended the Hampton Grease Band, Atlanta's version of Captain Beefheart, and its members encouraged him to start his own band. With teen prodigy guitarist Elsey, Calder founded the Swimming Pool Q's in 1978. The band's first independent release, 1981's "The Deep End" (DB), reflected its primitive rhythm and blues sound at the time, and Calder's songs were fractured narratives about stock-car drivers, tractor jockeys and boot-camp sergeants. Soon afterward, though, Boston's voice became more prominent in the band's sound, and Calder began to write more melodic, more emotional songs for her.
"I just realized that the music I liked the most was aimed at the gut," Calder recalls. "Rather than writing intellectually, I became more interested in the intense emotionalism of 'Pet Sounds,' 'Blonde on Blonde' and 'Turn, Turn, Turn' -- and that meant melody. I also began to write songs for a female voice, a female character. My background writing short stories paid off there." A decade after the boogie era of the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Swimming Pool Q's have joined R.E.M, the dB's, Let's Active, the B-52's, Love Tractor and Guadalcanal Diary in once again making the Southeast a fertile source for musical reputations. Before the national breakthrough of R.E.M. two years ago, these bands played the same circuit and encouraged one another through bleak times.
"Now when we play in the South, the opening acts are R.E.M. cover bands," Calder says. "It's not that different from the Allman Brothers. These kids see R.E.M. as role models, as a way to get out and see the rest of the world. The kids we meet always complain how dead their town is. They want to get out, but they can't -- maybe because of family, maybe because of money, maybe because they're scared.
"I like playing for those kids because they're not jaded. They're open-minded and enthusiastic about anything new to come their way. Maybe that's why the music scene there has been so creative. I want to play for regular kids in regular towns -- I don't want to write songs directed at 250 artists in lower Manhattan.
"At the same time, I'm not a regional chauvinist -- I hate that Confederate flag-waving stuff. That's one thing that distinguishes us from the boogie scene. I don't think being trapped in a town is specific to the South. It could apply just as well to the Midwest or the Southwest. We just put a different sport coat on it."