Swearin' Coat Their Fuzzy Pop-Punk With Grit and Integrity on 'Surfing Strange'

8
Surfing Strange
Critical Mass
Release Date: November 5, 2013
Label: Salinas

by Jillian Mapes

You can't blame a baby band for making a big commercial grab on their sophomore album, but thank god Swearin' didn't play it like that. Though they showed an impressive ear for pop melodies on their eponymous 2012 debut, Surfing Strange buries its hooks beneath six feet of fuzz, recalling Built to Spill and the Breeders at their least major-label-inclined.

What separates the Philly/Brooklyn quartet from fellow '90s revivalists like, say, Yuck, is that Swearin' stay grounded in the rawness of punk, with a commitment to DIY best exemplified by Allison Crutchfield, the strongest of the band's three vocalists. At 24, she's already something of a veteran, having founded and amicably ended two pop-punk bands — the Ackleys and P.S. Eliot — with her twin sister, Katie, a.k.a. singer-songwriter Waxahatchee. On Surfing Strange, Allison takes up with boyfriend Kyle Gilbride and two pals, Keith Spencer and Jeff Bolt, for what feels like a real team effort: The 45 seconds that open "Mermaid" rank among the most satisfying guitar trashing you'll headbang along with this year, but there's also room for two-minute bursts of toe-tapping joy elsewhere ("Young").

There's a democratic variety and musical complexity here that 2012's Swearin' lacked, but both records flaunt a no-bullshit sense of authenticity. There's a wonderful, rough-edged appeal to Surfing Strange, full of hooks that Rivers Cuomo might've written before he started sucking. Swearin' worked fast, too, as evident from the album's slapdash sequencing: The gorgeous confession "Loretta's Flowers," for example, is followed by an abrupt tempo change that kills the intimacy built up by Crutchfield's lyrics about youthful indiscretion masquerading as love.

The mixing, too, could stand to kick up the vocals to a level that's a bit more comprehensible amid the riffs on riffs, though who knows if that would make the lyrics feel less abstract. There's lots of poetic non-sequiturs here, loose sketches of an early adulthood spent figuring out who and what feels right, though occasionally a line jumps out at you — "Ignorant past, it won't ever let me relax" or "You'll waste it all on champagne and cab fare" — and the picture gets clearer. "Indie rock" has long since ceased to be either "indie" or "rock," of course, but Surfing Strange signifies on both counts, just when we desperately needed a refresher on the fundamentals.

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