It’s rare to hear anything about Swearin’ without a mention that one of its lead vocalists has an identical twin sister who’s also in the music business. Indeed, Allison Crutchfield’s sister Katie may perform on her own as Waxahatchee, but the sisters’ close relationship is woven through the trajectories of both outfits. When they made their first forays into the punk scene in Alabama, it was in bands together, against the world. They still live together (now in Philly), play together, tour together, and lend each other songs, as was made apparent at Swearin’s show last night at Baby’s All Right.
“My sister wrote this song for a band we were in together,” Allison said in her introduction to “Subterranean,” which appeared on last year’s re-release of their debut EP, What a Dump. The sprightly, slightly grungy pop-punk number clearly wouldn’t have worked on Katie’s lo-fi debut American Weekend or 2013’s critically acclaimed Cerulean Salt, so it was “given” to Swearin’, a band that’s always skewed toward the hyper, visceral, and immediate, and purposefully away from any precious clichés of the pensive singer-songwriter.
The Crutchfields’ twinhood might be the obvious thing to latch on to, and their prolific output as a creative force certainly makes their relationship as musicians difficult to untangle, even with separate projects of a very different bent. But Swearin’s dynamic actually hinges on a different duo — that of Allison and her boyfriend, Kyle Gilbride. The stringy-haired, Nineties alt-boy heartthrob prototype writes as many of the songs as Crutchfield does and takes the mic about half the time, his embattled, nasal yelp immediately recalling quintessential emo bands of yore like the Get Up Kids. He also produces and arranges the band’s records (as well as lending a hand on Katie’s). On 2013 LP Surfing Strange, Gilbride’s vocals and songwriting featured more prominently than ever, as though filling the space that Katie occupied in the sisters’ earlier projects P.S. Eliot and Bad Banana.
Live, Gilbride’s vocals tilt too often toward grating, and though it seems the band has a rule about each writer singing his/her respective songs, it’s hard not to long for more time with Crutchfield’s emotive, riveting vocal acrobatics. In Swearin’s most sublime moments, harmonies between the two eke out of the guitar fuzz. At the end of “What a Dump,” or throughout “Watered Down,” for instance, the sweetness in Crutchfield’s delivery softens Gilbride’s bitter wail; she tones his over-the-top whine down just enough to make it more listenable. Jams like “Dust in the Gold Sack,” with which the band ended their 45-minute Baby’s set, are Swearin’s new bread and butter, and the new songs they’ve been performing attest to that as well.
All of this is, no doubt, an effort on Swearin’s part to be seen as a whole, rather than a vehicle for Crutchfield’s performance. It’s an admirable but slightly quixotic task; Crutchfield possesses a self-assured, buzzy magnetism that will inarguably remain the most compelling aspect of the band’s output. “Movie Star,” the track that closes the band’s self-titled 2013 LP, is a perfect example: As the snappy verses about the innocence of first love gave way to its singalong-inducing last moments, Crutchfield’s vocal broke wide open on the line “You and me got enough to get away.” Anyone in the audience would’ve packed a bag right then and there and followed her anywhere.
And after building a churning, restless momentum for much of the set, things ground to a show-stopping halt with “Loretta’s Flowers,” a simply strummed Crutchfield number equal parts compassionate and lacerating. Written as an attempt to talk sense into that hapless romantic friend we all have, Crutchfield’s deadpan “When you get older, you’ll realize what this was…it wasn’t love” hits a nerve in all of us. Even though the song is a slightly awkward fit in an otherwise energetic set, it’s entirely captivating. Gilbride can write a hook, but there’s just no comparison when it comes to connecting with a crowd.
It’s hard to predict, based on the few new tracks peppered into last night’s Baby’s set, what shape Swearin’s next record will take. On the whole, Swearin’ don’t so much make a statement with their songwriting as they do an attempt to capture youthful punk exuberance in all its urgency. Crutchfield sings often about getting older, but Swearin’ songs have always revolved around getting swept away in an exact moment, be it in love or at a basement show or driving on a turnpike. In keeping with that ethos, they seem more content to play a handful of shows with no record to promote than they do finishing any new collection. The challenge for them will be staying out of a formulaic rut; already, many of the songs seem like repetitions on the same themes, structures, and sonic progressions. Then again, running the risk of being crushed by their own freewheeling velocity is part of their charm.