Douglas Martin knows there are more diamonds than rough.
The fracture of one of this decade’s most gifted rock bands, the Calgary based Women, has left us with rubble from the ruins, all treasures in their own right: Freak Heat Waves, whose self-titled debut was recorded by dearly departed Women guitarist Chris Reimer. The band erstwhile known as Viet Cong. It’s not at all surprising that the dissolution of a band like Women would spawn so many interesting offshoots; the members of Women were enthralled by the half-audible noise churning in the other room. Sounds coming from strangled guitars and loose, overused pedal knobs. They brought a resolutely unmusical element to their compositions and made it sound harmonious all the same.
Viet Cong*, naturally, is the thriving pulse of what was once Women, featuring that band’s formidable rhythm section (Matt Flegel on bass and Mike Wallace manning the drumsticks). And though their relentlessly good self-titled debut also housed Women’s structural curveballs in fits and starts, they didn’t quite possess the same enigmatic, melancholy epidermal layer of a lot of the best Women songs. That’s because Patrick Flegel, the moody, restless id of the group, was too busy causing an unruly racket by himself as Cindy Lee.
Guitar experiments abound, there are parts of Tatlashea that sound a bit like Sonic Youth, but not the Sonic Youth that has become underground rock’s tracing pattern for decades now. Most bands are simply too self-conscious to tap into the essence of their fruitful era that was actually revolutionary; they want to sound like Daydream Nation, Washing Machine, and the Jim O’Rourke sessions.
Songs like “Fuck Myself Stupid” and “Assassination Reality” are true spiritual successors of Confusion is Sex; they’re noisy, claustrophobic songs coming across as improvised and foreign to anyone who listens to bands that care about song structure. Flegel is untethered to any one style, but captures them all in a way that fits together, through pop ballads like “Holding the Devil’s Hand,” “Head Down,” and “Promise of Loneliness.” There are also peculiar kraut demos like “Greasy Muthrfuker.” Tatlashea is far, far left-of-center, even as far as Women is concerned, but its weirdness and Flegel’s predilection to write interesting music in spite of that makes the tape an engrossing listen. But his talent of synthesizing off-kilter jams to the melodically addictive extends back to the days of Women.
Officially released on December 26th, Act of Tenderness marries Tatlashea’s whirring, squalling, corroded-brake-pad noise to a songwriting focus much akin to his previous group, but that’s by no means the parts making up the sum. For starters, Act of Tenderness has a melancholy which courses throughout the record, a quality which appears sparingly on Women records. (And that’s okay; nobody but me would sing the praises of Women if they had five or six versions of “Venice Lockjaw” on each of their records.)
After an opening title-track reminiscent of Dirty Beaches in its eerie, bleating drone, “Power and Possession” plucks a spare guitar figure with Flegel’s high-register vocals, warning an unidentified someone not to cleft his heart into two pieces. Voices flit in and out of the background, as if the person the song is intended for is being haunted by the ghost of their soon-to-be-ex-lover.
If “Power and Possession” is an emotional haunting, “New Romance” sounds like an exorcism of spirits, with vocal melodies ironically bright and hopeful as sounds presumably made from a guitar gnash and wobble loudly in the foreground. It’s a love song happening right in the middle of paranormal activity. The descending, atonal riffs on “Quit Doing Me Wrong” gives the feeling of falling down a staircase made of chicken wire, while “Bonzai Garden” sounds like a Halloween house of horrors locked in the radiator from Eraserhead. On scattered pieces of Act of Tenderness, Patrick Flegel unleashes an inner turmoil that sometimes can’t be explained with lyrics, or even music. It’s a primal scream by way of voice and musical instrument.
When Flegel focuses on writing songs traditionally, the results are sublime and evocative. The slowly pulsating “What I Need” is expressed like a plea coming from the diaphragm and tears of a dejected soul looking for comfort and solace. Right after it is “New Romance,” which reaches from that same emotional foundation, but sounds as though it was recorded in a wind tunnel with inhospitable spirits. So much of Act of Tenderness has a ghostly timbre, like there are spirits of unrest hiding behind the recording consoles.
“Last Train’s Come and Gone,” assuredly the album’s most starkly beautiful song, floats along with a gorgeous guitar line and Flegel’s dolorous falsetto—begging to be heard, begging to be set free—and droning chords in the background like steam coming up from ships in a nearby bay. The album’s closer, “A New Love is Believing,” starts out hopeful but slowly and surely gets the hope siphoned out of it, eventually becoming an almost operatic denouement.
With the gurgling and buzzing of guitar along with the first iteration of the song’s main riff, “Wandering and Solitude”is an almost cinematic portrayal of Patrick Flegel’s strengths as a songwriter. The song cascades through not only the air in front of you, but the sky far off in the distance, a survey of the separation between you and everything else, and how sometimes, that’s a blissful statement of peace and tranquility within one’s self.
Beauty and ugliness are often brought up as opposites, but with the many ways they are blended together, it’s more that they’re variations of a theme rather than ideologically irreconcilable. Act of Tenderness not only juxtaposes gorgeous melodies with sometimes-hideous noise, but it also conjugates both entities until you can’t tell where the ugliness even is. The album’s soundscapes are alternately alluring and unsettling, but it’s all beautiful. It shows whatever is in Patrick Flegel’s mind. It’s that same blend of pretty and ugly that exists in all of us—the tumult going on in all of our brains that could make way for something weirdly alluring if we allow it.