Graded on a Curve:
Sally Crewe,
“Back at the Bar” EP

Singer-songwriter and guitarist Sally Crewe first arrived on the scene in 2003 with Drive It Like You Stole It, a record made in connection with her band the Sudden Moves. As additional releases have emerged, Crewe has become something of a well-kept secret with an impressive list of collaborators, and her new EP “Back at the Bar” reinforces the consistency of her pop-rock acumen on four originals and one well-chosen cover.

I’ve seen numerous photos of Sally Crewe, but never have I glimpsed her wearing a hat. Based on this lack of cap sightings her personal stance on said garment is of course still purely circumstantial. If Crewe does choose to sport a lid, it’s a plain fact that she’s been hanging it in Austin, TX for close to a decade now. And it would be easy to assume through this nugget of information that her choice of locale played an intrinsic role in Britt Daniel and Jim Eno of Spoon serving as the backing unit for her debut.

But that’d be a faulty conclusion, since Crewe was actually residing in England when that record was cut. Her relationship with Spoon (she and the band shared a label in 12XU) did commence some worthy connections, however. For starters, Kimberley Rew of the Soft Boys guested on her second full-length, 2005’s Shortly After Take Off, and once relocated in Austin (she’s also lived in NYC) Crewe formed a new Sudden Moves with drummer George Duron, a vet of Roky Erickson and Dumptruck, and bassist Matt Baab of The Distant Seconds.

Duron and Baab have hung with her ever since, though the latter doesn’t tour with Crewe, a circumstance that has found power pop champ Tommy Keene as her fill-in bass player. Additionally, a third long-player The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You appeared in ‘08. And a few years ago ex-Death of Samantha/Guided by Voices guitarist Doug Gillard became a productive member of her musical family, going so far as to co-write the tunes on her EP “Transmit/Receive.”

The names above will definitely assist the unfamiliar in gathering a sense of Crewe’s sonic thrust, but worth noting is the frequent comparisons she garners to one Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders. Nevertheless, in the interest of diversity I’ll mention that on “Back at the Bar”’s opener “Sooner or Later” her voice possesses a tangible if subtle similarity to Martha Davis from The Motels.

This resemblance is more than slight but not terribly deep. Crewe has an abundance of sly pop moves at her disposal, but like Hynde she’s a rocker deep down rather than, and this description shouldn’t be considered as a dismissal of Davis’ talents, a chanteuse that just happens to be backed up by guitar bass and drums.

And after collaborating with Gillard on “Transmit/Receive” she’s the sole composer of this EP’s four original compositions, with “Sooner or Later” blending elements of power pop’s melodic forcefulness with the songwriting complexity found in the more trad-minded guitar-focused outfits that flourished as part of the late-‘70s/early-‘80s New Wave. This is particularly apparent in the engaging non-simplicity of Duron’s drumming, with the aura of intricacy also discernible as the tune deftly slides into a slightly catchier mid-section.

And with the exception of Duron, every sound heard in the song is multitasked by Crewe, surely a notable feat. Plus, “Back at the Bar” lacks the conflicts of interest that weakened the releases of many new wave acts including the later-period Motels, specifically, a friction derived from the desires of pop chart potential filtered through the requirements of then contempo rock radio while attempting to retain loose ties to the new scene that spawned them.

Instead, Crewe and Duron’s co-production is full-bodied but lacking in unnecessary sheen. Handing the music off to Bob Weston for mastering was another bright decision. The cumulative effect well serves a tidy batch of songs that if referential to a certain style/period do avoid playing-up any explicit traits of the era; not retro or even neo, the work of Sally Crewe is brimming with a timelessness that’s refreshing.

And if she’s ultimately comparable to The Motels it’s to “Counting,” a number cut by that band’s first (and best) incarnation for a ’76 demo tape (spurned by Epic, the tune initially surfaced on the Rhino Records compilation Saturday Night Pogo, with the company later placing it in their killer comp series DIY, track three of We’re Desperate, the volume that profiled Los Angeles).

A major component throughout “Friends on the Radio” is the tough-minded songwriting smarts associated with the late-‘70s UK pop-auteur school (that’s Costello-Parker-Lowe-Jackson-Difford & Tilbrook), and as Crewe is from England this is really no surprise. But there’s also a hint of early Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in her guitar playing, and while her pipes are not as hearty, Crewe’s singing does bring Neko Case to mind.

Crewe writes with conciseness as an ideal. Only one of her originals here breaks the four-minute mark, her art largely following the age-old dictum “leave them wanting more,” though it should be emphasized that her material is fully-formed and rife with surprises. For example, “Antisocial” takes a somewhat buoyant melody and then heaps on thick bass lines and sturdy drumming as the riffing increases and eventually gives rise to soaring lead work.

By extension, “Buttons on the Boy Side” is mid-tempo pop infused with a robust sense of dynamics, especially in the final minute as it shifts to a heavier, more driving template before embarking on a nice fadeout. Crewe’s vocals are in typically strong form, though as the lengthiest of her tracks it is the EP’s one flirtation with excessiveness. Thankfully its best moments come late in the scenario.

But the longest entry on the disc is saved for last, a reverent yet distinctive reading of XTC’s “Making Plans for Nigel.” It’s a swell version that fits in snugly with the overall quality of her tunes as it secures “Back at the Bar”’s level of success. Along the way it greatly underscores Crewe’s enduring affinity with a wide range of simultaneously stripped-down and intellectually-inclined pop-rock.

Gillard guests on the cut, adding his guitar and freeing up the leader to focus directly upon the vocals, though across the previous four tracks Crewe’s string-slinging holds enough spark that his arrival connects quite casually. Gillard’s presence does help to sum up a solid, vibrant effort from a veteran artist that’s been deserving of wider recognition for quite a while. For those needing relief from the malady of the Next Big Thing, “Back at the Bar” could easily provide an effective antidote.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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