In high school I worked at a College Rock station. Late eighties, early nineties, the format was already going through a rechristening, shedding the misleading elitism of College Rock for the bloat of Modern Rock and then the whatever catchall Alternative. No matter the name, this was the greatest era in the history of recorded music. Because it was mine. Because I knew so little and claimed so much. Down the line, that grandiose and proprietary band-grab has brought a lasting burden: some nights I still dream about the albums I left behind. Not those records I lost interest in or learned to see in a different light, but the music that time and I have literally forgot. I wake from the dream grasping to remember a mind-blowing track I spun during my sets on “Radio Free Eugene” (I know, right?) only the band has fallen off the virtual map and I can’t dredge up the damn name. The Havelinas? Satellite Boyfriend? Died Pretty? Can’t be – all those I still remember.
From different continents and different angles, Philadelphia’s Waxahatchee and Scotland’s Golden Grrrls are bashing out records that could be lost jewels from the Hatfield/Dando heyday of College Rock. Records that take the “album” as their essential compositional unit. Records that could have been mastered when Brooklyn was where the Dodgers left and bands came from places like Chapel Hill and Columbus and Providence. Not as homage or cultural recycling or an exercise in post-anything, Cerulean Salt and Golden Grrrls independently arrive at the same musical territory once mined by Blake Babies, Throwing Muses, and Scrawl: whipsmart, alluringly-hooked, guitar-bass-drums rock. And unlike contemporaries Best Coast and Dum Dum Girls – where the creation of persona appeared to precede the songwriting – Waxahatchee and Golden Grrrls wring compelling musical identities from words and music alone.
Recording as Waxahatchee, ex P.S. Eliot frontwoman Katie Crutchfield has wasted little time building upon her 2012 debut, American Weekend. Though American Weekend was frequently folded into the “cabin” narrative of the lone singer holed up with a battered notebook, an acoustic, too much booze, and some breakup shit to exorcise, there was nothing hushed or folkie or Vashti Bunyon about the result – Crutchfield hard-strums and projects like she honed her chops busking on busy thoroughfares. Cerulean Salt takes a huge step forward by taking a step back: supported by members of Swearin’ (her twin sister’s Superchunk-y band), Crutchfield revisits the verdant harmonies and winning crunch of P.S. Eliot, folding in all the strength and depth she learned from going it alone.
Cerulean Salt still delivers striking solo moments – “Tangled Envisioning” and “You’re Damaged” are as gripping and personal as anything from Hips And Makers-era Kristen Hersh – but Crutchfield’s bittersweet rasp was made for messing around with barely-sober bass and stubbled high-spirits behind the kit. “Lively” builds from a loping melody and thick-thumbed bassline to a full-on fuck-it of cymbal crashes, with Crutchfield conceding “I had a dream last night/ we had both hit separate bottoms. “Swan Dive” is some kind of wonderful: a steady-rolling backbeat, earnest chord changes, and a wrong-side-of-the-tracks romance where “I will grow out of all the empty bottles in my closet/ and you’ll quit having dreams about a swan dive to the hot asphalt.” Cerulean Salt never wobbles or flags, from the sprightly Hersh/Donnelly harmonies of “Coast To Coast” to the brazen Crimson & Clover riff of “Peace And Quiet” to the 3AM weariness of “Brother Bryan,” which somehow reminds me exactly of Will Johnson. Chances are, by the end of the year no one will be left grasping for the name Cerulean Salt – the album should be everywhere.
Surviving on listener donations and shoestring public-funding, “Radio Free Eugene” had a major problem with theft. By which I don’t mean the liberal lifting of ideas or my own youthful brand of hording, but stealing as in barely paid deejays and engineers walking off with the actual records. And if someone jacked our copy of Pylon or Trotsky Icepick or The Close Lobsters, that was it – we didn’t play them. There were no replacements, so I took to writing “DO NOT STEAL” on the covers of 7” promos and rare CMJ compilations (I swear, I thought I owned the stuff). Despite my best efforts, an EP of B-sides and live tracks from Scrawl was among the new releases that quickly turned up missing. At best I listened to it two or three times and probably only played one track on air, but I’m certain the thing was heartbreak great. Make that almost-certain – I’ve never located another copy and it’s possible I’ve glamorized and fetishized this lost EP based less on those few listens and more on the thousand times I’ve replayed Scrawl singer Marcy Mays’ damaged and debauched guest vocal on The Afghan Whigs’ “My Curse.”
Marcy Mays was something else. A legit bridge between Joan Jett and Kathleen Hannah: commanding her own sexuality, drinking the boys under the table, and tearing it up on “Slut” and “Green Beer” while still allowing vulnerable admissions like “I’m sad… sad… I’m so fucking sad.” With their murkier sound quality, Scrawl’s Plus, Also, Too and He’s Drunk haven’t endured quite like comparable albums by Hersh’s Throwing Muses or Juliana Hatfield’s Blake Babies, but every so often I’ll give Scrawl a spin and be inspired to take a fresh Google trip through pages devoted to the band, scouring the archives of Rough Trade and Simple Machines for clues pointing toward an EP that might not exist anywhere outside of my own mind.
As a virtual inversion of that experience, Golden Grrrls self-titled debut came to me from out of nowhere and sparked the rapid-fire rush of a lost relationship suddenly resurrected. No anxious preconceptions, no advance notice, the band’s self-titled debut popped up in my inbox alongside the daily deluge of unheard music. More music than hours of the day, I can’t pretend to attend to it all, but from the ecstatic opening chords of “New Pop,” Golden Grrrls immediately buzzed latent bundles of synapses, snapping across pleasure centers of hell-yeah while delivering a sound both instantly recognizable and wholly self-contained.
Drummer/lead-vocalist Eilidh Rodgers takes up the intriguing tradition of singer-percussionists like Georgia Hubley and Mimi Parker who learned to sing in accompaniment to their own instrument – slightly forward and from a higher place in the thorax. Like Scrawl, Golden Grrrls layer their more rubicund vocals with deadpan, not-quite harmonies, as guitarist Ruari MacLean provides a droll counterpoint to Rodgers’ emotive leads. Yes, emotive – Golden Grrrls (and Waxahatchee) brave a return to that scorched earth DMZ where certain offshoots of College Rock were browbeat to near extinction by all those neo-McCarthyite A-holes who dismissed any band with guitars, brains, and passion as “Emo” – I know who you are, motherfuckers, and I’ll never forgive what you did to Rainer Maria.
As with Waxahatchee, there’s plenty of Miss Amanda Jones in Golden Grrrls’ angular jangle. “Older Today” bounces to tambourines and “shanana-nana-nana na-na’s” in a tune so stompingly anthemic the inputs and tunings have had to be muted in the name of decency. “Past Tense” should be sung by too many people crammed ass-to-thigh in a shitty car, the rubbery bass-line, crisp cymbals, and shifting pitches drowning out all the beater’s imperfections. Choose a song, throughout Golden Grrrls you can play “count the hooks” and usually run out of fingers just after the bridge. All the while, on indelible tracks like “Think Of The Ways,” Rodgers and MacLean do that Rainer Maria thing where each sound like they’re singing their own private song, their vocal lines sporadically rubbing shoulders and cheeks before ducking off and spinning back into their own round.
At root, both Cerulean Salt and Golden Grrrls are about being young and making noise and getting turned around and losing shit and finding shit and then deciding to make some more noise. Cerulean Salt will almost certainly find its way to you, while Golden Grrrls may stay hidden on the fringe. Most things are never really lost, you just don’t know exactly where they are. No matter what, every time I set off looking for that missing Scrawl EP, I always manage to find my way back to Marcy Mays.