Review Summary: The major-label debut is often the killer for indie bands. Luckily, Scrawl navigated the pitfalls and made a strong follow-up to Velvet Hammer.
After nearly a decade of wounded, naked, painfully confessional lyrics and a decidedly lo-fi, post-punk musical outlook, Scrawl must have been wondering how the hell they ever wound up on a major label. Clearly, by 1996, riot grrl had taken its full effect, so the signing was, in truth, probably just a knee-jerk reaction by Elektra - Scrawl were, after all, a predominantly female band with a defiantly female outlook and several female fans, and they'd been a part of riot grrl events for years, having earned the adoration of subcultural fanzines. Still, what commercial potential did they ever think Scrawl would have?
Travel On, Rider
was the band's major label debut on Elektra/Asylum (back when Asylum was still a folk-rock label), following the grand statement of one of the finest albums of the 90s, 1993's Velvet Hammer
. The differences come from the label - this has better production and a tighter sound, though Steve Albini is still responsible for the 'recording'. The jangling chords that appeared so often on Velvet Hammer
have taken a back-seat, replaced by newly foregrounded doomy arpeggios that, as always, have a slight hint of Daydream Nation
-era Sonic Youth about them.
The songs, though? Largely, it's business as usual. "Good Under Pressure" kicks things off by getting straight into the heart of matters - it's a sloppy rock song about domestic abuse, just like "Take A Swing", the highlight of Velvet Hammer
. It's also every bit as good. "The Garden Path" is similarly excellent, and when the lovely chorus of "I'm Not Stuck" hits, it seems that this may even top their previous masterpiece.
Yet, what sets this apart is the presence of 3 songs that let the side down, keeping this at arm's length from challenging Velvet Hammer
. "He Cleaned Up"'s constant, furious repetition of 'He cleaned up/She took him back/He ***ed up/She kicked him out' is clearly meant to convey a relationship that just goes round in circles, but the song's drive toward repeating these lines as fast as possible becomes annoying. "What Did We Give Away?" is a weak closer, thrown into sharp relief by the fact that it's preceeded by the gorgeous "Story Musgrave (At The Piano)", a song fit to close any album. And "From Deep Inside Her" doesn't seem to fit in to the album, being a little too happy for its own good. Taken alone it's a very good song, but it derails the album by appearing at track 4 here.
Still, the rest is strong. Both versions of "Story Musgrave" are excellent, the opening 'He would look down at laugh/At the thought of a crash' immediately arresting, the pay-off of 'I'm smart enough to know you have no use for me/Sure enough to know you will one day' heartbreaking. There's a few more driving rockers on this one - "Hunting Me Down", "The Garden Path", "Louis L'Amour", "He Cleaned Up" - which give the album a personality distinct from any other Scrawl record I'm familiar with. Dana Marshall's drumming is still very good, and Marcy Mays' voice is still a weapon a lot of bands should be jealous of. She does wounded, defiant, and steely better than almost anybody.
Given that this is their last album comprised entirely of original material, we can happily conclude that Scrawl bowed out with heads held high, at the peak of their powers.