Douglas Martin’s Dirty Shoes: Public Strain’s Infectious Inscrutability

Douglas Martin is delighted that putting the word “band“ in parenthesis makes Women far easier to search on Google. As I alluded to in my review of “Eyesore”, the near-perfect closing track...
By    September 9, 2010


Douglas Martin is delighted that putting the word “band“ in parenthesis makes Women far easier to search on Google.

As I alluded to in my review of “Eyesore”, the near-perfect closing track of the band’s sophomore record Public Strain, Women are a band that thrives on inscrutability. In an age where everyone from garage-punk shit stirrers Harlem to the endlessly and predictably retweetable Kanye West, are breaking down the wall between artist and audience 140 characters at a time, Women don’t seem at all interested in demystification.

From the unpredictable turns in their songs to their diffident onstage personae, it’s pretty clear that the members of the Calgary band don’t really give a shit if you figure them out. At times, it seems as though they actively resist the very notion of accessibility, but not in an eye-gougingly pretentious way like Fiery Furnaces, but more like a “every one of these yahoos is going to form a band” Velvet Underground sort of way. You know, before they became the gold standard of underground rock and there were only a scattered handful of fans that actually understood what they were doing.

Resisting accessibility in this case also means resisting categorization. On their self-titled debut record, Women pulled out more stops than your average wet-behind-the-ears tandem of indie-rockers; they went from VU-inspired garage-pop (fan-favorite “Black Rice”, “Upstairs“) to alarmingly deft guitar work (“Shaking Hand”) with the flick of a wrist, even jumping from hyperactive, harmony-driven folk-pop to glockenspiel-led minimalist indie in the same song (“Group Transport Hall”). As a live entity, they were a different beast: A darker, heavier psych band with a Doors influence profound enough to make hipsters rethink why they decided to hate Jim Morrison in the first place (probably because of their own underlying Oedipus Complexes stemming from the lyrics on “The End“).

Public Strain (out now in Europe, coming September 28th to North America via Jagjaguwar and Flemish Eye) is a record that taps into the low-end-heavy sound the band has developed as a live unit, paying homage to their myriad influences while still sounding only like themselves.

The record starts off with a feedback piece that sounds somewhere between a Godzilla scream and an orchestra tuning up, the only semblance of melody in opener “Can’t You See” being the dubby bassline and Patrick Flegel’s bleating vocals. From the outset, the quartet draws the line in the sand, jumping right into the punchy “Heat Distraction”, a blizzard of guitars unfolding into lockstep rhythm in 5/4 time. Staying true to their prodigious ability to try virtually any style of music while still sounding like themselves, “Narrow with the Hall” comes next, a jangly garage tune not entirely unlike “Black Rice” aside from the fact that the former is buried in enough layers of White Light/White Heat-style noise to give John Cale a boner. The Velvets make the easiest line to trace between Women and the past, with the noise being coupled by the alluring fret work of penultimate track and melancholy stunner “Venice Lockjaw”, which earns the distinction of being a distant relative of beloved Pavement b-side “Strings of Nashville” (a song with a very protracted Velvet Underground influence).

On “Drag Open”, the band takes a more Sonic Youth-like approach, coupling a circular bassline with detuned guitars and charging drums, splitting apart at the seams to make way for an incinerating, exploratory guitar jam. Songs like “Drag Open” and “Locust Valley”, the song that immediately follows it, are defiant statements against the current crop of popular indie-rock bands content to ride their three chords all the way to the bank. Of course, these– nor the excellence of Public Strain in its entirety– will probably not make the band any more popular than their more simplistic peers, nor does it do anything to make Women more accessible or knowable. But something tells me they wouldn’t want it any other way. And neither would I– listening to Women hints at a vague sense of mystery, and it suits them damn well.

MP3: Women-“Narrow with the Hall”
MP3: Women-“Eyesore”

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