As one half of Brooklyn punk band P.S. Eliot, Allison Crutchfield and her sister Katie mastered the kind of raw, lo-fi songcraft that manages tenderness while still creeping into the quiet side of the punk spectrum. With the four-piece Swearin’, Allison and her co-vocalist Kyle Gilbride funnel that nerve into a sound that’s spikier and more buoyant, punk in its gruffness and pop in its taste for the hook. But the most endearing moments on their second record, Surfing Strange, approach that initial sweet spot, plumbing emotionality with a loose, offhand delivery. It’s a less intimate album than Katie’s latest with Waxahatchee, and it cleans up from Swearin’s self-titled debut from last year. Heavily indebted to ’90s alt rock, Swearin’ hit their marks the hardest when they loosen genre templates and sneak a few confessionals in among the fun stuff.
Single “Dust in the Gold Sack” rolls through the kind of pure, high-contrast pop rock that Kim Deal and Black Francis brought into the world, echoing Swearin‘ highlight “Kenosha”, but with a brighter production sheen. Poised at the top of the tracklist, the song sets a bar that’s never quite met again in the album’s pithy runtime. Gilbride adopts a J Mascis drawl for most of the record, but his warm, solid delivery doesn’t carry the same urgency as Crutchfield’s at its most excited. “We are defective!” she yelps at the peak of “Gold Sack”, more a dare than a self-deprecation.
While Swearin’ does big and throaty as well as the best of them, their heaviest songs sound too much like period pieces to stick. “Mermaid” might be pure guitar porn, but there’s not enough in the way of content to repurpose the well-traveled sound. When the band focuses less on performing genre and hones in on performing themselves, they fare better. The sedated “Loretta’s Flowers” lets Crutchfield’s vocals and a spare electric guitar hang in dusty space. Her lyrics circle the carcass of a relationship, a parting note to a naive partner. She finishes with a measured verbosity: “I want to see what insides look like when they feel the way yours do.” Here, talking around something hits deeper than talking through it.
Swearin’ have reached the point where they’re almost too good at what they do. Surfing Strange boasts impeccable museum pieces, but its scuffed edges are what draw in the deepest.
Essential Tracks: “Dust in the Gold Sack”, “Loretta’s Flowers”, and “Young”