One From the Heart

Scrawl
Travel On, Rider
(Elektra)

If I were a boy, and I found out that my girlfriend was listening intently to Scrawl's new recording, I'd take a good, hard look at our relationship and try to figure out what was bugging her. But boys don't usually think that way; it's far more likely they'd listen to the recording and say, "Hey, these chicks can't play guitar," and be done with it. Scrawl's strengths as a band have always been subtle, and although Travel On, Rider--its fifth LP and first on a major label--is by far the best album of its career, it is also the band's most difficult.

Because it's from Columbus, Ohio, Scrawl is often associated with the Afghan Whigs, and indeed, Travel On, Rider is the Ladies to the Whigs' 1993 tour de force Gentlemen. On the latter album, Greg Dulli sang about the dark side of the male psyche; here, Scrawl's Marcy Mays is equally versed in exposing feminine self-delusion. But where Dulli disowns the actions of the men he writes about, Mays is deep inside the behavior of her protagonists: This one is from the heart.

When she sings, "I'm smart enough to know you have no use for me, and sure enough to know you will some day" on "Musgrove Story," you're overcome with a sense of elation. To me, one mere line of self-knowledge and profundity is worth a thousand songs of so-called female self-empowerment by groups such as Babes in Toyland, Bikini Kill, and Hole. Like those bands, Scrawl plays music that is slightly atonal; its chord sequences have a kind of trademark clanginess. Although Mays can certainly sing (as her guest slot on the Whigs' "My Curse" proved), her voice is neither conventionally pretty nor quite as arresting as, say, P.J. Harvey.

Travel On, Rider is not a pretty or poppy recording, but it sure is a true one. It's full of deeply realistic songs about how girls feel when they're in the midst of an unsatisfying relationship. For example, how many women can bear the implied moral scrutiny of "Circus Song," with lyrics consisting of the word string "He cleaned up/She took him back/He fucked up/She kicked him out," repeated over and over again at an ever-increasing pace?

And if it's true that women love Alanis Morissette because they like to imagine themselves confronting a duplicitous ex-lover, how will they react to the far more recognizable image of a woman in denial who sings things like "It might look like my wheels are spinning/I swear they're spinning for a reason," and "Sure, it's a good time/Maybe not the best time . . . but I swear that I'm not stuck"? That song--along with others such as "Come Back," "Good Under Pressure" and "The Day She Was Through With Punk Rock"--is so emotionally resonant, it's almost (but not quite) too painful to listen to. If you're looking for someone to tell you that acting like an insane female is okay, this is not the recording for you. But if you're willing to look a little deeper into the roots of romantic delusion, you might do well to listen hard to Travel On, Rider.

 
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