Swearin’ – Surfing Strange (Album Review)

by Steven Spoerl

P.S. Eliot always felt like lightning a bottle and no one was exactly certain what’d happen when that bottle broke. Fortunately, for everyone, there was never a break; it was more of a letting-out. Twins Katie and Alison Crutchfield went in separate directions, with the former spearheading a devastatingly hushed acoustic project as Waxahatchee. Alison grabbed Kyle Gilbride and they took off to start blazing paths under the Swearin’ moniker. Since then, the lion’s share of the public attention has fallen to Katie while Swearin’ have been furiously kicking away in the shadows, releasing both a demo EP, What A Dump, and a self-titled full length over the past two years. Both releases are decade-so-far highlights.

With both What A Dump and Swearin’ being as potent as they were, it only makes sense that they’d be emerging from those shadows about now. A recent co-signing to UK-based Wichita records certainly can’t hurt either. While everything was coming together for the release of their upcoming sophomore outing Surfing Strange, a First Listen honor from NPR provided the final cherry on top for a formidable pre-release campaign that included a music video premiere from Stereogum. All of those factors add up to intimidatingly high expectations, expectations that Surfing Strange manages to artfully subvert.

This subversion is presented immediately with lead-off track “Dust in the Gold Sack”, which not only refines their palette but adds to it. Gilbride brings a previously-unheard shoegaze element into the fold with his guitar work on the thrilling chorus, while an acoustic guitar anchors much of the song despite being buried in the mix. All of the frustrated energy present in Swearin’ is still clearly evident, only now the band has embraced it with a more wizened sense of still-youthful giddiness and a newfound maturity. While “Dust in the Gold Sack” retains and refines the band’s extraordinary melodic sensibilities, the ensuing track brings a new element to the forefront; it gets heavy. Only this time it’s not the hardcore-infused blasts of “Kill ‘Em With Kindness” but a heaviness that underscores a palpable exhaustion. It’s startling in its honestly and provides the perfect back-half of a 1-2 punch to set up the record’s overarching themes.

Throughout the remainder of Surfing Strange the band’s principle songwriters (and real-life couple), Crutchfield and Gilbride, underscore a record that’s ostensibly about personal growth.  At certain points they even cede the spotlight to bassist Keith Spencer, who makes up one of the more formidable young rhythm sections of the burgeoning garage pop scene with drummer Jeff Bolt. Spencer’s turns as the focal fixture are about as soft and vulnerable as Crutchfield’s but slightly, and only slightly, less enthralling. However, that democratic process and presentation is part of what makes Swearin’ such a unique act to begin with. Instead of one distinct entity composed of interchangeable components, it’s an absolute whole made up of four distinct personalities. That the personalities are as visible as they are is a rarity in today’s music and allows Swearin’ a pull that other acts simply can’t match.

As it was on What A Dump and Swearin’, the songs on display in Surfing Strange continuously expand on repeat listens, eventually becoming something more akin to old friends than old songs. While all of the twists and turns on Surfing Strange do require more patience to familiarize, the journey’s well-worth it. Even if the record’s pacing is off from time to time, it’d take a cruel cynic not to be won over by the record’s final stretch. That final stretch begins with the record’s definitive moment, the boldly experimental (all things considered) piano-heavy “Glare of the Sun”.  In that single track, the band finds their way through nearly every influence present throughout Surfing Strange and touches on its key components. Shoegaze guitars return, there’s a somewhat-resigned turn at vocals, a few stylistic shifts, and  lyrics touching heavily on both the past and the future that provide a fairly poignant picture of where the narrator stands at present.

After the somewhat staggering “Glare of the Sun” relents, Surfing Strange re-injects itself with the kind of energy and chemistry that made those first two releases so singular. “Unwanted Place” and “Young” are two of the most energetic tracks in the collection and showcase just how well the band can play off each other. There’s anthemic choruses, a bevvy of 90’s indie influences worn proudly on the member’s sleeves, and an infectious joy that invigorates the more melancholy mood Surfing Strange had built up to that point. “Curdled” brings things to a quieter close that lends the record a sense of finality. Yet, as it is with everything else Swearin’ has done, it’s more than a little tempting to just hit repeat.

You can stream Surfing Strange here.