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Friday, May 13, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Upfront Lyrics, Bleak Emotion Drive Scrawl

------------------------------------------------------------------ Club preview

Scrawl, rock music, with Hazel and Excuse 17, Thursday night, at the Crocodile Cafe, 2200 Second Ave., $5, 441-5611. ------------------------------------------------------------------

It's been almost 10 years since Scrawl took their first stage, wowing a hometown Columbus, Ohio, crowd. Since then, they've garnered much critical acclaim, had their picture in The New York Times and played part of the Lollapalooza tour last year on the side stage.

Yet they're more obscure and less lucky than arguably less-deserving bands. Their former record label, Rough Trade, went bankrupt in 1990, leaving them "intimidated and confused" about the music industry for two years, according to vocalist/guitarist Marcy Mays. Even the hype surrounding female bands in 1992 - remember Year of the Woman, or Foxcore? - created a blip rather than a surge of attention for Scrawl.

"Obviously, there's a love of doing this and writing songs that keeps us doing this," said bassist/vocalist Sue Harshe in a phone interview last week. "Not doing it is not an option."

"We're kind of cloistered away in Columbus," she said, "so we've had a lot of time to think about things. It's a vibrant scene and it's fairly untainted, but it makes it kind of hard to gauge things.

"We've been around so long that people really can't help but having heard of us. We're not going to change the way we write, but it would be nice to not financially struggle to make records."

Their latest record, last year's "Velvet Hammer," is filled with stripped-down yet powerful songs. The vocals are clear, upfront, and done without any added reverb. Drummer Dana Matthews (the only male in the band) benefits from engineer Steve Albini's trademark attention to crisp, precise drum sounds. But it's the bleak emotion and often startling imagery of Mays' lyrics that really drive the album.

In "Prize," Mays' narrator is locked in a dismal relationship, saying things like "You tell me not to call so I come over instead," "Now there's something on your mind and I turn up the TV," and "You asked me not to drink so I passed out in a different bed."

In "Remember That Day," a group of friends watch a gas well catch on fire, describing it as "looking like sunrise all night." "Your Mother Wants To Know," a scouring song about a regretful mother trying to get in touch with her daughter, hits a payload of emotion with just a few well-crafted lines.

"Marcy's songs are painstakingly written," Harshe said. "It's more introspective than my process, and it's hard for Dana and me to watch her go through writing, because she takes it so seriously. But thank God she does.

"It's probably a sadder record than others we've done. It's not that much more complex, but there's more layers. I hate to say it's more mature, so I won't."

Portland's Hazel, who is opening the show, has been the subject of rampant breakup rumors since a Portland acoustic show in February. "We did break up for about 18 hours," said bassist Brady Smith.

"It wasn't an entirely civil show, but we realized what we wanted to do as a band from the experience. We realized that playing quietly ruined us, and we all really want to be part of a punk rock band. It re-politicized us, and that felt really good."

The band, who released one of last year's better albums on SubPop, is now focused on new material in order to recapture the "raw and sloppy energy" they all sought during the band's three-month hiatus from live shows.

The time off also has allowed Fred Nemo, the band's one-of-a-kind dancer, to recover from a knee injury that kept him sidelined for several recent shows.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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