Philadelphian DIY rockers strike the perfect balance between fragile melodies and tornadoes of noise
Swearin’ frontwoman Allison Crutchfield used to be a member of the bands The Ackleys and PS Eliot with her twin, Katie. When PS Eliot split in 2011, the sisters went their separate musical ways. Katie formed lo-fi solo project Waxahatchee, and her second album ‘Cerulean Salt’ is one of this year’s most intimate. Allison formed the rowdier and fuzzier Swearin’ with guitarist and co-vocalist Kyle Gilbride, drummer Jeff Bolt and bassist Keith Spencer (who’s also in Waxahatchee), and their excellent self-titled debut came out last year to very little fuss.
The same won’t happen with ‘Surfing Strange’. The songs are beefed up on an album that was recorded in the basement of the Philadelphia house Crutchfield was sharing with her bandmates and sister, and they maintain the almost twee spark that made Swearin’ lovable in the first place. Cutesy they can be, but the only thing that’s wet about them is the sporadic water theme running through the album: in its title; in the moment ‘Watered Down’ opens with the line “I was getting wet”; in the drums crashing like waves on ‘Mermaid’.
Instead Swearin’ are a powerful force with an ability to switch between soft and hard in a similar way to ’90s alt.rock heroes The Breeders. They know exactly when to strip things back, as on the fragile ‘Loretta’s Flowers’; and they know exactly when to ramp things up into mini tornados of noise, as they do on the clattering peaks of ‘Echo Locate’. On ‘Melanoma’, which begins tenderly with just Gilbride and his guitar, they know exactly when to introduce a fuzz storm and smother the track with gloom; and on ‘Young’, Crutchfield comes in at precisely the right moment to sweeten the song’s buzzsaw guitar by promising to “follow you anywhere”.
The interaction between Crutchfield and Gilbride makes the album fizz, most notably on the slacker rock of ‘Unwanted Place’ where they spar with each other’s jagged riffs and searing solos. It’s then that the calmer, Pavement-like ‘Curdled’ brings the album to a sleepy end, as if the emotional power of the 10 tracks before it has zapped the band’s energy. It’s a calm finale to a record that’s full of energy, zeal and ideas.