Before the media-savvy riot grrrls came of age and put a cool name to being young, female and punk, there was nothing intrinsically glamorous or trendy about having the guts to flip the gender script and muck about in the mire of America’s indie rock world. Columbus, Ohio’s Scrawl, a trio of tough chicks with no specific agenda and far more enthusiasm than skill, began rocking out in 1985 as Skull.
Scrawl’s first-born, Plus, Also, Too is sloppy, occasionally strident indie-pop. Although her aggressive guitar work is dandy, Marcy Mays’ uncertain singing (joined in disharmony by bassist Sue Harshe; drummer Carolyn O’Leary completes the lineup) isn’t equally beneficial to Scrawl’s rugged melodicism, cutting sidelong through songs rather than moving them along. There’s promise in the grooves, but the vocals just don’t cut it. (Besides reissuing the album, Rough Trade later stuck, appended, attached Plus, Also, Too on the CD of He’s Drunk.)
Strings of cryptic fragments serve as the intriguing lyrics on He’s Drunk, a more proficient and varied follow-up. The songs are neat (besides their originals, Scrawl demolish and then rebuild the Hombres’ garage-rock classic, “Let It All Hang Out,” and give Felice and Boudleaux Bryant’s “Rocky Top” a politely quiet reading); the instrumental work is generally solid. But while Mays and Harshe both show improvement, their voices still don’t blend together very well at all.
Producer Gary Smith, who worked wonders for the Blake Babies and has done records with Throwing Muses and other neo-pop ensembles, reigned in Scrawl’s discordant excesses on Smallmouth, drawing out the sturdy melodies with presentably confident vocals. Tidying up the sound might have removed the jagged corners that make Scrawl invigorating, but the trio (especially Mays’ intense guitar strikes) skillfully holds its own, making songs like the tender “Charles,” “Tell You What” and “Time to Come Clean” both bracing and appealing. The sketchy lyrics touch on real-life encounters and personal problems with engaging near-the-surface intimacy; the music is a bit brasher than that but not by much. While some of the songs are clearly punk-derived (“Rot,” “Absolute Torture”), the band’s ’70s rock roots get to showing in “Charles,” a rewrite of Kiss’ “Beth,” which leaves a message for a lover waiting on a rocker. Mays’ sweet piano cover of Eurythmics’ bitterly sarcastic “I Need You” ends the album on a handsome, smartly feminist note.
The Scrawl on the seven-song Bloodsucker (issued twice with adjusted artwork) is harder, in both rock edge and emotional stance. Evidently embittered by bad experiences in the record industry (Rough Trade’s collapse undoubtedly among their woes) and relationships, Mays and Harshe sing and play with renewed fervor, which works to their advantage in dispirited songs like “Love’s Insecticide,” the depressed “Please Have Everything” and the powerfully edgy “Clock Song,” a Gang of Four-like call and response that sets miserable lines (“Don’t want to get out of bed…Don’t want to look at myself”) against an encouraging chorus of “Go, girl, go!” Scrawl’s ripping cover of Cheap Trick’s “High Roller”—stripped-down and businesslike—isn’t as good in the execution as the conception, but makes its point all the same.
Dana Marshall replaced O’Leary in 1992; the following year, Scrawl recorded Velvet Hammer, a great- sounding modern-rock record (credit uncredited engineer Steve Albini) delivered straight from the jaws of hell. “Drunken Fool,” “Your Mother Wants to Know,” “Tell Me Now, Boy,” “Take a Swing” and “Prize” are only some of the blunt, raw, conversational songs of first-person failings and ruined romance. Singing in an unsure voice that aptly reflects the mood of this poignant and unnerving album, Mays (effectively harmonized, and spelled with little emotional improvement on “See” and part of “Remember That Day,” by Harshe) rips herself apart, wishing only for the relief of release: “I know you’re sick of me not acting my age…I want to be strong but I don’t put up a fight…All my friends look at me like a stooge, look at me I’m a loser…You ask me not to drink so I passed out in a different bed…I can almost feel myself evaporating.” Hard to enjoy in light of the obvious pain, but a terribly potent bloodletting of misery into art.