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There’s always been a rustle of hickory wind in Scrawl’s music, and as this formerly all-female trio (new drummer Dana Marshall is a guy) has begun to emphasize the slow ones over the fast ones, the twang has become more pronounced. Still, in making the case that this Ohio folk-punk band is (sort of) playing country music, it would make sense to start with the lyrics.
Scrawl’s first album to get national distribution was called He’s Drunk, and songwriters Marcy Mays and Sue Harshe (the former writes most, but not all, of the lyrics) have penned more fall-down-drunk tunes than most women guitarslingers of their generation. On the band’s new Velvet Hammer, songs like “Drunken Fool” and “Prize” are explicitly about the bottle and the damage done, while ones like “Take a Swing” and “Face Down” don’t exactly suggest a sipping-mineral-water world.
“Prize” updates the classic George Jones/Tammy Wynette scenario for a new generation—“You ask me not to drink so I pass out in another bed”—and concludes that “there ought to be some kind of prize/If one of us survives.” These songs are shot through with despair and disgust, and most of them don’t need a sour romance to give them a twist. “Tell Me Now, Boy” is confused and a little peeved by a new relationship—“How’d you get to be the only one?” asks the mystified Mays—while “Your Mother Wants to Know” matter-of-factly takes interpersonal trauma back to its postpartum beginnings: “Your mother wants to know when you’re coming home for a weekend/She wants to know if you’re ever going to talk to your brother again/She has some cash if you need it/She knows what she did and she didn’t mean it/Your mother wants to know how much you remember/She wants you to like her so try to forget it.”
The plain-spoken, chatty style of such lines is the essence of the band’s aesthetic, and despite six years in and many dispiriting encounters with The Biz (the trio had to buy back its own masters at auction after former label Rough Trade folded), Scrawl’s ruefulness retains the common touch. Songs like “Remember That Day” evoke a whole everyday universe with just a few shards of reminiscence: “We skipped out on vo-tech to drink beer and pass Frisbee/Bill from the detention home broke his ankle and went to jail.”
Of course the parrying between Harshe’s bass and Mays’ guitar is essential to that tale. As deceptively offhand as the lyrics, the music coaxes a lot of drama from the simplest musical developments and underscores the conversational mode with near-harmonies that verge on pretty but never quite get there. Though it gives the tunes added punch when Mays and Harshe sing at the same time, they never quite sing together. On “Take a Swing,” Harshe sometimes merely lags behind Mays, sometimes actively counters her part. Either way, there’s an aching void in the gap between the two voices.
The tension in such arrangements is not well suited to transcendent sentiments; there’s a lurking anxiety that distinguishes some slow songs like “Disappear Without a Trace,” but the quiet “Blue Green Sea” (another attempt at the same theme) merely seems bland. (That, in part, is because Mays and Harshe are undependable melodists; their songs generally benefit from faster tempos and the harsher guitar and livelier singing that goes with them.) Where many contemporary guitar bands seek oneness with the universe, or some feedback-saturated facsimile thereof, Scrawl remains a punk band—its music still seems dissatisfied.
That’s why Velvet Hammer is most convincing when that Nashville breeze is engulfed by a roar or a shout. The simple testament that “I remember that day” sounds defiant, while “Take a Swing” dares a bar-fight: “Show me your fists,” challenges Mays, “put me in my place.” At moments like this, it seems absurd that Scrawl could ever be put in its place, let alone disappear without a trace.
Anger is an energy, and sure enough that’s Johnny himself snarling rottenly—“You lied! You faked! You cheated!”—on the latest change-the-world British dance-floor hit, LeftField/Lydon’s thumping “Open Up.” Still, you don’t expect rage from Heavenly, the Oxford post-shambling quintet that’s still vigorously rubbing off the unfortunate “cutie-rock” label. And you certainly wouldn’t expect these adorable warblers to be energized by the current cause célèbre of U.S. campus feminists, date rape.
In the past, the Heavenly option has been true love, and the quintet’s five-song P.U.N.K. Girl opens with a delirious account of a crush (on the selfsame “P.U.N.K. Girl”) that’s the rowdiest thing the band has ever recorded; as Amelia Fletcher swoons, “I don’t care if they can’t see/Just how great the girl can be,” Peter Momtchiloff’s guitar shrieks. (Momtchiloff is reportedly Fletcher’s boyfriend, but he doesn’t sound concerned; he sounds, in fact, like he’s having a great time.) The song’s as pretty as anything in the band’s catalog, but its feedback is as integral as Fletcher and Cathy Rogers’ harmonizing.
Same-sex passion is the least of the band’s attitudinal experiments, though. “Hearts & Crosses” tells the story of a young woman whose romanticism leads her to trust a guy with a “film-star pout,” who shatters her fantasies by raping her; “He bit her heart, but never kissed her,” intones Fletcher with a melodramatic flair worthy of the Shangri-Las. (Specifically “I Can Never Go Home Again,” while the spoken intro to “P.U.N.K. Girl” echoes “Give Him a Great Big Kiss.”) The EP ends with the even balder and blunter “So?,” ana cappella accusation about “what you did to me last night” that would be ideal fodder for anAntioch discussion group.
Sandwiched between this pair are two brush-off songs, “Atta Girl” and “Dig Your Own Grave,” that treat breaking up as just as exhilarating as making out. “I don’t have to be cute/Right through and through,” declares Fletcher in the former, talking as much to Heavenly’s fans (and detractors) as to the object of her disaffection. When one Heavenly voice sweetly trills, “Honey, come back, I miss you,” the other barks, “Fuck you, no way!” That contrast exemplifies P.U.N.K. Girl, whose first three songs offer the year’s canniest pop mixture of honey and vinegar. They’re also, and I mean this in the best possible way, pretty cute.