Grawlixes – Set Free (Southbound)


Currently Wellington based, the indie folk duo Grawlixes explore romance with a dry wit and a razor-sharp tongue on their debut album, Set Free.  Like a hot cuppa-soup laced with arsenic they offer warm comfort and the satisfaction of a slow painful death to all those lovers who dared to spurn us. 

Robin Cederman (guitars, bass) and Penelope Espin (accordion, guitar) will be faces you know, as they liberally spread their talents around – they’ve shared the stage with French for Rabbits, Prophet Hens and Sunley Band and a few others, too.

In case you are wondering – a ‘Grawlix’ is the literary term for swearing (think of cartoon swearing that you see in comic books: “&%#@$!!!’).  And there’s a bit of swearing in the backstory to this album, too.  Both Robin and Penelope were once a dating couple, so the original concept of their album was all lovey-dovey.  But then, damn it, it all went south and the doubt crept in.  Then there were grumbles, niggles, backbiting and squabbles.   Eventually full erosion.  But the couple soldiered on, using this experience as inspiration.

To their credit they both eventually came back to the album a year and a half later.  It was finally mixed by veteran Dunedin producer Tex Houston whose light touch adds some wispy ethereal ambience to the album.  In a sense, you can’t help hearing the damp and cold of the walls of their Dunedin flat particularly on the quieter tracks.  It feels heavy and slightly claustrophobic in places.

As a breakup album its starts almost optimistically with the title song, Set Free, which also opens the album.  “She came from the bottom of the bluest sea/ She came in the middle of a fading dream…now she’s been set free….He came right from the bottom of the bluest sea…He came to me in the middle of this fading dream….Now he’s been set free”  To me, these lyrics are like the story of their relationship with their own respective dream boats (each other) arriving into their own dream worlds from  a mystical land.  But after the affair is finished they also leave in a wisp of smoke, as if they were only there in the imagination.  Alternately, the video, which features some very cool footage recorded while the duo were in Switzerland playing at a wedding, shows little girls releasing a Chinese lantern into the sky, escaping into the night like fireflies or dreams.  It’s a simple song with many meanings.  That’s the appeal.

Good Shadow was apparently ‘stolen’ from an old friend and reworked slightly into a more upbeat number.  It’s probably the only ‘banger’ on the album, a le more danceable folk tune.  With the addition of Alex Vaastra’s meandering violin and Espin’s melancholy vocals it makes the gloom of a lost relationship seem more wistful and positive.  “Please, good shadow, don’t let me down, now.  Don’t cross me when I turn around.  Don’t sneak up on me, I’m the king of sound”.  This is like the shadow is a friend.  She’s calling for help and needs support not judgment.

Lover Boy has an interesting twist about courting an older woman.  A potentially dangerous affair.  It was written by Robin as a response to Penelope’s earlier song, Darling, which also appears on the record.  The song is a simple and pretty tune designed as a wooing song.  It’s chirpy, coy and delicate.  But Lover Boy is almost the opposite.  It’s more like Robin is toying with the notion of entering the Cougar’s den.  His voice sounds slightly cautious.  There’s trepidation but also longing.  He’s pining for this dangerous affair. “I met at your sister’s in a crowded room/you said you worked up a blister reading David Hume…We crossed at a corner, took it as a sign I don’t mind being borrowed If take me home/give me rules to follow or let me roam.”  It’s a slight not towards 1/50th of a shade of Grey, perhaps.  By the way I don’t know of many songs with David Hume in the lyrics – Monty Python’s Philosopher’s Song is the only one to come to mind.

And speaking of a laugh, there’s also some humour on this album.   I’m not sure that Any Last Words was intended to be funny but this song, with little delicacy, deals with the strong desire all couples have sometimes to kill each other – metaphorically, we hope!  It starts off easy.  “If you knew what I meant I wouldn’t have to tell you just what I meant/If you knew what I liked I wouldn’t be so disappointed in bed,” Penelope sings in a deadpan drawl, “I you cared for me I wouldn’t have to ignore you in social situations.”  But then it turns deliciously dark.  “If you didn’t flirt with my friends I wouldn’t have to chain you to the chair in our basement/ If you helped cook and clean I wouldn’t have to starve you and mock your cries for help.”  And finally, we can see where this is going.  “If you didn’t cheat on me / I wouldn’t have to bury you in the woods…Any last words before I put you out of your (read: ‘my’) misery”.”

What’s also refreshing to hear is Robin and Penelope’s very Kiwi accent, as opposed to some contrived American accent or another dismal alternative.  The dry humour, in particular, works well in this vernacular.

This is a wonderful first release.  I’ve known about these guys for ages and as a Wellingtonian I see them pop up on my local stage.  They promise a darker more evil second album – this time about the after effects of breaking up.  And I’m looking forward to that, too.  I know their friends, French for Rabbits have just released a break up album, too.  But this one is different.  It’s more whimsical, I think.  Not as harsh or gutting at times.  But it’s still clever and tuneful and biting.

Tim Gruar