Swearin’, the new quartet featuring Allison Crutchfield (ex-P.S. Eliot), taps into the melodic power mainline of prime ‘90s indie rock, and their self-titled debut full length LP should interest fans of such bands as Spinanes and Versus. The groups’ ability to combine hooks, crunch, velocity, and attitude into concise tunes makes it readily apparent that Swearin’ has the potential for at least one classic LP; unfortunately, it’s just not this one.
It’s all but inevitable that a whopping, foamy wave of ‘90s nostalgia will lay a massive drench upon this still young decade, and in fact the trend has been underway for some time. Some will dread this impulse, while others will embrace it like a knapsack overloaded with Stussy ball caps and cassette singles. Most however will deal with its rise, crest, and fall on a case to case basis.
But while the two decade nostalgia split that began with the ‘70s looking back with curiosity and longing upon the era of innocence and simplicity that was the ‘50s (a misapprehension sure, but ain’t it always that way?) is now firmly entrenched as a cultural phenomenon, it’s also worth noting that some of the folks yearning for a time twenty-odd years previous were/are actually too young to be properly nostalgic for the period of their exaltation.
Also rearing itself up with consistent regularity is the dissatisfaction of young people with the perceived domineering nature of contemporary culture, and I say good for them. Sometimes this frustration inspires the creation of music that’s legitimately groundbreaking (i.e. “ahead of the time” it was made) but more often the disaffected elect to celebrate a prior era, particularly when they believe that a certain segment, scene, or subculture really had it all figured it out and thusly were a perfect model for being at odds with the overbearing putridity of the present.
One listen to Brooklyn New York four-piece Swearin’ will quickly solidify that the band are young and unabashedly smitten with the sound of ‘90s indie-rock. Young but far from inept (singer/guitarist/ostensible leader Allison Crutchfield has already made a name for herself along with twin sister Katie in the now defunct outfit P.S. Eliot), and while unimaginable without the top-notch indie gush of the ‘90s, the band also don’t register as the slightest bit self-conscious about it.
Swearin’ can be accurately described as a punk band, at least in the ideological sense of the term. On tour they gravitate to shows in houses, art galleries, and performance spaces rather than just securing the standard gigs in bars. This punk spirit/indie sound split is reminiscent of the outstanding Screamin’ Females and surely dozens if not hundreds of contemporary bands I haven’t heard. And this mixture actually feeds right into their reverence for the 90s, for many of those second-wave indie bands wore punk attitude proudly on their sleeves; think Bratmobile as a band very resonant to the subject of this review.
When Swearin’s songs hit their target the band is nearly impossible not to like. Last year they released a six-song EP titled What a Dump, and listening to it immediately conjured up memories of spinning Kicking Giant or Sleepyhead discs while reading the latest issue of Chickfactor or Popwatch and weeding through a small avalanche of indie offerings with the objective of narrowing down my potential purchases to a manageable level on the next trip to the record shop (if you’ll forgive my own personal moment of ‘90s nostalgia).
That EP started strong but faded somewhat by its conclusion. This is familiar territory for anyone who has spent any time listening to debut EPs, and it was no need for alarm in this case especially, for What a Dump has been described as a demo. And Swearin’ also begins with a bang, the brief opener “1” fading up smartly (an underused tactic) and segueing quickly and deftly into the suitably hyperactive “Here to Hear” before jumping right into the exquisite “Kenosha,” a true nugget of indie sass that can stand toe-to-toe with any similarly styled songs from whatever likeminded ‘90s act you’d care to name. Track four “Fat Chance” is also up to snuff. But then the problems begin.
Six of Swearin’s eight subsequent songs simply lack the edgy effervescence of the record’s opening jolt. The two exceptions are doozies, though; “Divine Mimosa” shifts into some almost low-fi strummy ache, the kind that constantly found its way onto cassette-only comp tapes (the kind that came gratis with DIY fanzines) circa ’93 or thereabouts. Beautiful stuff, and after “Kenosha” it’s the best track on Swearin’. “Crashing” also makes a strong showing, but again the LP’s half dozen lesser cuts linger like leftovers, songs that perhaps just needed a little more time in the practice space or room to grow on those endless live stages, experience either developing them into something truly memorable or finding them jettisoned to the reject pile.
So it’s tempting to say that Swearin’ would’ve made a killer EP, and that statement actually does possesses some truth. The problem is that two of this disc’s best tunes, “Kenosha” and “Crashing” were already on What a Dump. Indeed, “Kenosha” is shaping up as Swearin’s early calling card. If they’d released it on a 45 with “Divine Mimosa” as the flipside the result would’ve been an instant classic.
Instead, we contend with “Empty Head,” not a terrible tune by any means, but one far too beholden to the sound of early Built to Spill. And to be fair the sound of vocalist/guitarist Kyle Gilbride is very close to that of Doug Martsch, but on “Here to Hear” that circumstance was utilized to a much stronger effect.
After some thought, maybe it’s the punk defiance in Swearin’s recipe that’s providing the problem. One of the lingering traits that can negatively affect so many punk oriented endeavors is a satisfaction with merely replicating a certain tried-and-true sound. Once that is accomplished and a band is accepted into the scene, it often feels like the desire to hone and improve the music beyond a certain level is viewed as detrimental to its honesty.
And yes, overworking an idea can often kill its vibrancy, even more so in rock terms. But I also suspect the desire to actually sound outstanding is viewed by those in the audience as an attempt to rise above and separate from the pack, or even as a shot at going “pro.”
This causes me to flash back to 1989. That’s when on advice of a friend and the indefatigable monthly ads in Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll, I buckled under and bought The Thing That Ate Floyd, a double LP compilation from the early days of now defunct Berkeley, CA area punk label Lookout. And after listening for a few months I had to face some plain facts.
Out of thirty-four bands, less than a half-dozen were something more than just acceptable, and only two were excellent (for the record, Vomit Launch and Steel Pole Bath Tub). If punk was once about ripping it up for the purposes of beginning anew, a little over a decade after that ground zero the concept had stumbled into a playground of low expectations.
To be clear, I don’t think the members of Swearin’ are consciously limiting their work to fit in with a scene. I just think this sensibility has its hooks extremely deep in the punk methodology. And youth again; it’s certainly possible that I wouldn’t be having these qualms if I were hearing Swearin’ through the ears of a twenty year old, for this band’s least inspiring tune is far better than nearly all of The Thing That Ate Floyd.
Based on the sheer quality of their best material, Swearin’ are a band that easily bears watching. If they want to achieve a status comparable to the best acts from the period of their sweet inspiration however, they will need to be more than just satisfied with presenting a synthesis of that era’s righteous indie sounds.
Instead, they’ll need to strive for the standard of song quality that made the music of their models not only seem like the best of times twenty years ago, but also produced records that still stand tall today, even without the aid of ‘90s nostalgia. That standard is why Swearin’ sound like they do. This promising band is more than halfway there. They just need to step it up and finish the job.
GRADED ON A CURVE: