opinion byJEAN-LUC MARSH
Classification under the genre of “Indie Rock” can spell the end for a band before anything has begun. The epithet is one that grew beyond its original boundaries into a term liberally applied to nearly anything with a guitar and a lack of Top 40 airplay. Long a genre falling into obsolescence, the sobriquet of indie rock ceased to fulfill its sole purpose: it could no longer reliably inform you as to what you were about to hear. The umbrella of indie rock expanded so widely that it encompassed melodies and styles far too disparate to be classified as one. Holes began to form, and soon the deluge was pouring in through the tears. Little justification remains to keep it around, save for nostalgia and lack of a better replacement. Until the day that the zeitgeist devises some kind of substitute, the moniker will remain, decaying save for the courageous efforts of those with the bravado to take on the status quo, plugging the holes and restoring “Indie Rock” to its former eminence. With their sophomore effort, Surfing Strange, Brooklyn-via-Philly quartet Swearin’ come close.
How else do you qualify a record that jumps between the varied spaces of garage, blues, stoner, and good, old-fashioned rock-and-roll? Surfing Strange manages to traverse these divides, repeatedly, without compromising any of the East Coast wit or Southern candor that form the trenchant one-two-punch behind Swearin’s music. It is a strategy from the collective playbook of the Crutchfield sisters, but whereas Katie struck out on her own as Waxahatchee, allowing her plaintive tones to unfold almost unfettered on Cerulean Salt, Allison Crutchfield retained the devastatingly honest lyricism the twins share, and retooled it to fit amidst more robust tempests of sound that Swearin’ is wont to construct.
Allison allows herself to become another sound amidst the squalls, the canary at the center of the maelstrom, her frank words cutting through the gusts of bullshit in dulcet tones, but never entirely in control as sprays of static and gales of aggressive guitar swirl around her. No moment epitomizes this phenomenon better than album opener “Dust in the Gold Sack.” The first few lines are delivered in Crutchfield’s sweet Southern lilt, but the real fun begins towards the end of the lyric “the crunch of the black ice and the buzz of the semis,” the final word lost to the crash and bang of the opening salvo. From that point on, it is a riotous slice of paradise, impossible to resist the temptation of moving to, and a shot at the heart of indie rock.
The task of standing out over the sonic onslaught falls on the shoulders of Kyle Gilbride, whose languid drawl serves as the perfect foil to the drums and guitar that duel it out in the background of “Watered Down.” Even above the loudest moment in the aural storm, his lyrics rise above; the dripping halo crowning the menacing thundercloud. Keith Spencer, bassist, and the final of the three vocalists fades even deeper into the instrumentation than Crutchfield; a wallflower in the louder moments, and a ghost in those quiet enough to lend his lyrics some light.
Despite the addictiveness of the riffs like those found on the opener and “Young,” there are stretches of Surfing Strange that become taxing on the listener, blending into nondescript masses of drums and feedback (“Mermaid” and “Parts of Speech” are hardly differentiable in terms of melody). It is at points like this that tracks such as “Loretta’s Flowers,” the tender reflective track hidden in the latter half of the LP, shine. Crutchfield gives Waxahatchee a run for her money, summoning the melancholia her sister pioneered, and fashioning it into confessional daggers. “When you get older, you realize what this was / It wasn’t love,” she reveals before going on to address the second person as “ignorant and impotent.” It is the quietest, and quite possibly the most incisive tell-off on a rock record in recent memory.
Indignation, nostalgia, and reevaluation all lurk in Surfing Strange, emerging at the opportune moments and injecting some relevance into indie rock. Contrasting cuts such as “Watered Down,” “Loretta’s Flowers,” and “Dust in the Gold Sack” embody the ideals of what the genre was originally intended to encapsulate, and convey them in alternating tones of reckless abandon and wistful thought. In only half an hour, Swearin’ gives the institution of indie rock a massive kick in the pants. [B]