Allison Crutchfield is, understandably, the center of attention where Swearin’ is concerned. The origin story almost demands it: After conquering the tiny, insular kingdom that is the DIY punk house circuit with their passionately-beloved-among-the-initiated P.S. Eliot, twin Crutchfield sisters Katie and Allison split up and set out to conquer slightly larger, slightly less insular kingdom of indie-rock under the banners of Waxahatchee and Swearin’, respectively. Watching them flourish this past year has been like watching old college teammates (who happen to be twins) move on to separate teams in the pros, Brook and Robin Lopez style. This is the kind of narrative people, including me, eat up; I may be guilty of comparing the Crutchfield sisters to Venus and Serena not that long ago. Besides all the sibling business, Allison Crutchfield’s voice is a fucking laser beam, the most instantly distinctive instrument at Swearin’s disposal, and her songs are monstrously catchy. So it makes sense that she’s what passes for the breakout star of this ensemble.
But it is an ensemble. Swearin’ is a democratic enterprise, with guitarists Crutchfield and Kyle Gilbride co-fronting the band and bassist Keith Spencer stepping into the George Harrison role with two songs of his own on this week’s stupendous sophomore effort Surfing Strange. And while I’d probably pick Crutchfield if I had to choose just one Swearin’ songwriter — “Dust In The Gold Sack” FTW! — I want to take this chance to shout out Gilbride and all the other second bananas holding it down in hydra-headed rock bands everywhere.
Let’s hear it for Mick Jones — not as iconic as Joe Strummer, but responsible for penning the masterful “Lost In The Supermarket” and other classics. Give it up for Art Garfunkel, without whom troubled water might never have been bridged. Raise your glass to Carrie Brownstein, whose spunky songwriting was as much an asset to Sleater-Kinney as her Pete Townshend windmills, and pour one out for Roger Miller, whose gruff post-punk noise rounded out Mission Of Burma’s skill set. Salute Daniel Bejar, whose twisted pop oddities were just what the New Pornographers needed to temper the non-stop sugar rush. And at the insistence of Stereogum’s own Michael Nelson, let us not dishonor the contributions of one Scott Kannberg, née Spiral Stairs, the unsung underdog ever in Stephen Malkmus’s shadow.
This list of rock ‘n’ roll Scottie Pippens could go on for a long time, so let’s get to the point. Gilbride might not be the boss, but he is a boss. Sure, he boasts a mere 76 Twitter followers compared to Crutchfield’s 1,576, and his contributions might often go overlooked, and you might have wondered “Who?” when you read this article’s title. But anybody who’s rocked out to Swearin’s records — or the albums he engineered for Waxahatchee, Radiator Hospital, Upset and the like — realizes this guy is a beast.
Gilbride handles lead vocals four times on Surfing Strange, excelling especially on “Watered Down” and “Echo Locate,” a pair of midtempo alt-rock wallops that bridge the gap between the Get Up Kids and early Built To Spill. His melodies are just as rapturous as Crutchfield’s even if his voice isn’t quite the powerhouse. Not that Gilbride’s pipes are a sore spot for Swearin’; his forceful whine satisfyingly skirts the blurry line between emo and indie-rock — not too cloying, not too buttoned-down. And when he’s at his most fiery, as on the scorched-earth quarter-life freakout “Here To Hear” from Swearin’s 2012 self-titled debut, he’s a force of nature.
Actually, on that song, when Gilbride rasps, “I keep thinking/ Is this as good as it gets?” he reminds me of one of bleeding-heart alt-rock’s other all-time great second fiddles: Uncle Tupelo-era Jeff Tweedy. After that band’s inevitable implosion, Tweedy eventually nabbed the spotlight from Jay Farrar with a string of glorious Wilco records that put Farrar’s Son Volt discography to shame. You could make a case that along the way Tweedy actually kept the late Jay Bennett under foot in the same way that Farrar leashed Tweedy in Uncle Tupelo (the cycle of abuse!), which led to Bennett’s own departure from Wilco. It’s a common problem: You put two great songwriters in a single band and sooner or later that band tends to unravel.
I don’t imagine Swearin’ ending on such contentious terms. Interviews like these two suggest this band is not the ego battleground Uncle Tupelo always was — more a complementary unit than two competing voices arm-wrestling for creative control. In fact, Crutchfield and Gilbride are so in sync as songwriters and performers that on the first album it was sometimes difficult to tell which one of them was singing due to the album’s low fidelity and Gilbride’s high voice. Now, given that Crutchfield and Gilbride are reportedly dating, any longterm prospects for stability become significantly more complicated. Sometimes that kind of thing works out; sometimes it doesn’t. But for now, the pair’s synchronicity suggests Swearin’ might be built to burn brightly for a long time rather than flame out.
I’m certainly not trying to fuck that up by pitting the songwriting lovebirds against each other or suggesting Gilbride is getting a raw deal or anything so scandalous. I just think it’s rad that Gilbride seems content to keep kicking out low-key fuzz-pop triumphs whether he gets big-upped for it or not. The concept of DIY punk scene as collaborative utopia is typically bullshit at its rankest, but Swearin’s track record so far suggests that when bandmates do find a way to swallow their pride, they can literally and figuratively make beautiful music together.