Review Summary: Scrawl's 1993 offering remains a bleak, touching indie rock masterpiece.
Scrawl, or as I like to refer to them, 'The Most Overlooked Band of the 1990s', were an all-female trio from Ohio that pre-empted the riot grrl movement by several years, releasing their debut Plus, Also, Too
in 1987. All the hallmarks of that short-lived yet massively important genre were in place in Scrawl's music before long - sloppy, noisy guitar playing; defiant, feminine lyrics that dealt unflinchingly with topics like rape and domestic abuse; and passionate, furious performances.
Scrawl arrived at their peak just as riot grrl as a movement became a media sensation. Their 1992 EP, Bloodsucker
- by which time their original drummer had been replaced by the sole male member in the band's history, Dana Marshall - suggested a break-out was imminent. It was Velvet Hammer
, released in 1993, that made Scrawl's legend. It earned them a major label deal with Elektra, despite the band having absolutely NO commercial potential, and saw nearly every one of the band's ideas perfected. It even earned Marcy Mays a guest spot as the abused, defiant female voice of The Afghan Whigs' own tour-de-force on twisted, co-dependant, emotionally abusive relationships, Gentlemen
. Her vocals on "My Curse", for many a highlight of that album, led to a great deal of exposure for her band.
I won't lie - I heard of Scrawl though The Afghan Whigs. And perhaps for that reason, I've seen Velvet Hammer
as the twin to Gentlemen
, the other side of the coin. Both are frequently bleak, defeated albums that have concepts centering around dysfunctional relationships that are crumbling around them. On Gentlemen
, Greg Dulli explores the male's point of view. Velvet Hammer
is the woman's response. There's a glowing review of this album on AMG that simply states that 'Velvet Hammer
is one of the saddest, most heartbreaking records you will ever hear'. Quite a claim.
For once - and it's not often I say this - AMG is right on the money. Some records are labelled 'heartbreaking' just because they have touching songs. Well, last time I checked, heartbreak was a ugly, violent thing, and that's the crux of Velvet Hammer
. Probably thanks to Steve Albini's presence as producer/engineer/recorder/whatever he's calling himself this week, Scrawl make no attempt here to cover anything up. It's like a twisted car wreck - ugly, horrifying, but you can't help but look (or listen, in this case).
"Take A Swing", the highlight, sums it up perfectly. Addressed to a former lover, it raises the spectre of infidelity, and touches pointedly on domestic violence. 'Now you resort to calling me names.....do you wanna talk about it" Can we handle this like adults" Or do you wanna scream" Do you wanna take a swing"' Later, it becomes even more explicit, biting, and ironic. 'Show me your fist, put me in my place.' Have you ever heard a broken relationship dissected with this honesty, power, and passion" Outside of Bob Dylan, and The Afghan Whigs' oeuvre, I certainly haven't.
Things don't exactly lighten up elsewhere. "Tell Me Now, Boy" - which anticipates Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah" sigh by a full year, I'll have you now - is one of the most telling songs on the record, a post-break-up elegy where Mays is torn between sticking to her guns and caving in, falling back into the relationship she's ultimately come to depend on. It's followed by "Drunken Fool", where the protagonist goes for a suicidal spin in her car. "Disappear Without A Trace" is similarly bleak and despondant, but it's home to an example of Scrawl's secret weapon - a gorgeous melody, anchoring the chorus, acting like a beam of light shot through the clouds.
Velvet Hammer is raw, dark, confrontational, bruised, enraged, powerful, and in its own twisted way, beautiful. It's the aural equivalent of flying into a drunken, passionate rage at the height of your emotional turmoil. It'll take you a while to dig beneath the surface, to understand the power and the hurt beneath the anger, but once you do, you'll be endlessly rewarded. A fantastic, criminally overlooked album.