People approach music with different sets of ears. Many listen for a pleasing melody or a danceable beat. Others seek out artists who push boundaries or sport fancy chops. While I can appreciate those things, and many others, if I had to pick a single feature that truly makes me fall in love with a band or a musician, it would be what I call ease.
It was hardly a surprise that I came across the NYC-based Swearin’s six-song 2011 demo, What a Dump — I’ve had varying degrees of friendships with three of the four band members and own numerous records from their previous bands. But since they’re friends, it was a relief to be able to say that I honestly liked it. The music is melancholy pop-punk in the lineage of bands like Jawbreaker and Superchunk, and the demo was clearly the mixture of lead singer-guitarist Allison Crutchfield, formerly of the delightfully haphazard heartbreakers P.S. Eliot, and guitarist-singer Kyle Gilbride, formerly of ’90s-alt-rock-inspired punks Big Soda. Bassist Keith Spencer comes out of the screams and grinding riffs of his former band Bad Blood, although that influence on the band is more subtle.
But with each listen I began to get the impression that some unknown element was definitely making Swearin’ greater than the sum of its parts.
The unknown element quickly revealed itself the first time I saw Swearin’ play live. In the dozens of shows I’d seen featuring members of Swearin’ in various bands, I had never seen them all seem so at home. Drummer Jeff Bolt visibly had a comfort level in his playing — watching him drum, a light smile never leaving his lips, it would be easy to assume anyone could do what he was doing. He had the grace of a finely trained dancer. It was fun. It was effortless. It was infectious. He had caught up the rest of the band in that feeling and created a collective ease. It undeniably came through in the sounds they were creating together, even if the music itself is uneasy.
So even in its first few months of existence, Swearin’ already looked and sounded less like a young band and more like weathered friends able to tell each other’s stories just as well as their own. But that feeling didn’t end with the people playing the music — it also touched me. I felt as though I had known this band for a long time.
Swearin’s new self-titled debut album delivers on the promise of the demo. Kyle and Allison’s bittersweet melodies are as good as ever. The rhythm section’s effortless groove never falters. The lead guitar lines practically force you to sing along. The recording quality is refreshingly good — a lot of DIY punk bands seem to approach the recording of their first album as nothing more than an extended demo — and the occasional sonic flourishes never get in the way of the songs.
And yet while all the hallmarks of the demo reappear, it’s great to see, right from the first notes of the record, that Swearin’ are ready to head into new territory. The opener “1,” starts us off with a cacophony of instruments that appear to be playing at the same time, but not together. The sound is jarring and definitely not expected. But almost before you can perceive what has just happened, everything locks up, Allison’s vocals come soaring in, and you have just landed in a perfect pop song. And then, not even a minute into the album, Jeff lays into a massive snare roll that seems as though it should conjure up tense muscles, dripping sweat, and clenched teeth but instead makes me think of drinking a cold beer with friends while watching the sun set on a hot summer day. The last notes of “1” segue right into “Here to Hear.” The song hits with what should be a heavy guitar riff but again, it instead breathes cool. It’s as if the riff had been written during high school angst but rediscovered and played again years later during a somewhat more promising time.
The third track, “Kenosha,” chugs ahead while Allison delivers a subdued melody that puts me on the edge of my seat every time I hear it. It hints at an uncontrollably approaching anthem of a chorus. But right as the song gets to that chorus, it simply… stops. The three seconds of unhurried silence before the chorus finally explodes is the most ostentatious display of coolness I could ever imagine.
The album continues with mid-tempo jams such as “Fat Chance” and the lo-fi “Divine Mimosa,” the synced-up accents of “Hundreds and Thousands” and “Crashing,” and the male/female vocal exchange of “Just.” Then right near the end, it again enters new territory for the band with the, dare I say, hardcore riffs of “Kill ‘Em with Kindness” and the guitar-and-vocal-only ballad “Empty Head.” The album closer “Movie Star” ends with much of the same unexpected jarring cacophony that the record begins with.
Swearin’ never lose their effortless cool, regardless of their tempo or style. That’s why they have that elusive and much sought-after thing: a sound. Creating a sound that’s mostly based on the chemistry between the players, rather than the kind of music they’re playing, is a rare thing indeed. It creates the potential for many years of worthwhile music. It’s incredibly rewarding for me as a fan to hear people I’ve known for years find a musical relationship founded on ease. It’s so obvious to me that they have it. I hope they realize it too.