November 6, 2013

Test Spins: Swearin’, Surfing Strange

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Those unfamiliar with Swearin’ might get the idea that it’s fronted by the louder sister of Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee … and they’d be completely right. Alice Crutchfield is Katie’s identical twin, and not only are their voices nearly indistinguishable, they also share a deep repertoire of ’90s indie influences forged from their time together in punk band P.S. Eliot. Building on the band’s 2012 eponymous debut LP, Swearin’ has released a musically and emotionally dissonant record with follow-up, Surfing Strange. While its first album featured myriad ’90s themes with a modern take, Surfing Strange is truly the best ’90s album that never happened. In fact, this record couldn’t have happened in the ’90s, given its wide range of disparate source material that could have only come together in hindsight.

Whereas Swearin’ was brash in its rambunctious pump-up tunes and brazen in its angsty, youthful lyrics, Surfing Strange is a dark, distraught album through and through. Gone are  optimistic millennial cries as they are replaced by brooding gloom. At every step, the brittle emotional foothold cracks and crumbles, creating an omnipresent sense of loneliness and helplessness. The band’s newfound maturity shows not only in the record’s tone but also in its songwriting. While the crashing drums and thundering chord progressions are intact, they gain intricacies and textures that were lacking from Swearin’s earlier work. These fabrics interplay with distinct melodies in what is becoming the band’s signature style, which constantly oscillates between consonant and dissonant.

The tracks sung by Crutchfield at once channel The Breeders’ edge and Sleater-Kinney’s boldness. Surfing Strange’s opener, “Dust in the Gold Sack,” is a strong introduction to the record’s mean streak as wailing, distorted guitars collide with yelps of “We are defective!” “Young” is as much of a jumpy upper as any of the tracks on the album, but the lyrics are still laden with hopelessness and the instrumentals’ edges are rough and frayed. In an attempt to democratize the band, vary their sound and/or dissuade the music press from harping on sibling rivalry, Crutchfield has yielded lead vocal duties on many tracks to her co-writers: guitarist Kyle Gilbride and bassist Keith Spencer. Gilbride’s cuts tends to be whiney and mopey in a west-coast punk or post-grunge fashion, such as “Echo Locate” with its requisite whispering bridge, followed by feedback and then simple power chords. But the most innovative and interesting tracks came with Spencer at the helm. “Melanoma” begins with a slow, Cobain-esque intro that is abruptly abutted by an impenetrable wall of distorted sonic assault. On “Glare of the Sun,” Swearin’ uses pedals and a piano in a playfully depressive manner that is closer to that of Butterglory or Built to Spill.

With such a thorough exploration of ’90s rock come pieces that are inevitably trapped in time. “Watered Down” so perfectly replicates Archers of Loaf or Pavement that it provides no new substance of interest. Surfing Strange also allows little respite from its abusively dreary emotional curve. The one track that comes closest to approximating the uplifting effect of Swearin’s peppy “Kenosha” is “Loretta’s Flowers.” This simple ditty puts a single electric guitar alone in the wilderness with Crutchfield’s yearning vocals as she sings of relationship issues with a stubborn partner. Albeit the least emotionally crushing track on Surfing Strange, it still shifts the record’s theme toward the despair of regret — the complete opposite direction of Swearin’s carefree jaunts.

On the surface, Surfing Strange is a near perfect time capsule of the diverse landscape of ’90s indie rock, a commendable effort in and of itself. Peeling away a layer, however, reveals a complex emotional arc driven by passionate songwriting and obsessive attention to detail. While the depressive onslaught can get tiring and the sonic themes can occasionally feel derivative, Swearin’ has successfully accomplished its goal of producing a heart-sinking modern homage to its two decades-old contemporaries.