“I’ll follow you anywhere. How could anyone spoil your fun?” sings Allison Crutchfield on “Young,” describing exactly how I feel about Swearin’. This formerly Philadelphia-based band debuted last year with a self-titled album of high-energy DIY pop-punk. Now, with Surfing Strange, they’ve slowed down to a mellower mid-paced tempo, giving the band room to show off some truly impressive songwriting and playing.
The relentlessly catchy album opener “Dust in the Gold Sack” shows how well Swearin’s pieces fit together: Crutchfield’s vocals fly smoothly over the fuzzy crunch of the guitars and bass, Jeff Bolt’s drumming sounds muscular and crisp, and a slightly warped guitar lead boosts the chorus. All four members of the band mesh their distinctive contributions together to make a perfect whole. This includes lead vocal duty: while Crutchfield, who also plays guitar, sang on a majority of Swearin’s debut, on Surfing Strange guitarist Kyle Gilbride gets a roughly equal number of lead vocal turns. Gilbride is just as compelling a singer as Crutchfield; in contrast to Crutchfield’s unshakeable cool, Gilbride’s style is rougher and more emotive, taking on a lazy drawl like J Mascis on “Watered Down” and an anthemic, nasal rasp on “Unwanted Place,” a soaring standout boosted by powerful, soaring guitar work.
Meanwhile, this democratic approach to singing allows Crutchfield’s songs to stand out even more than they did on the band’s debut. “Young” is the album’s most brightly colored, unselfconsciously joyous song, catchy enough to blast from a million radios and artful enough not to wear thin in the process. Elsewhere, Crutchfield’s vocals enliven the In Utero-esque sludge of “Mermaid” like a sudden rush of cool air in a packed, sweltering club.
The album also introduces yet another lead vocalist in bassist Keith Spencer, who sings for the first time on “Melanoma” and “Glare of the Sun.” His songs offer a change of pace from the immediacy of the rest of the album, droning with a charred texture that evokes the scorching heat of the sun. Sadly, they’re also the only songs on the album that drag. While Spencer has a distinctive sense of composition, the meticulous tension of his songs never quite pays off, and his vocals hang unassertively in the background. It will be interesting to see if Spencer develops an artistic voice as compelling as Crutchfield’s or Gilbride’s.
Nevertheless, Surfing Strange on the whole is the kind of album I want to play on repeat and over and over again. It burns with an instant nostalgia that almost demands that it soundtrack an impulsive cross-country roadtrip. Even in their most artful, introspective moments, Swearin’ are always having fun.
Review by John McAlmon