Album review: Women – "Public Strain"

Women’s latest release, “Public Strain”, is artier and more experimental than much of what is out  there right now. The album leans towards an early Sonic Youth aesthetic with its use of ambiance, noise, feedback drones and aggressive guitar attacks with through-composed song structures, but also throws in a few tricks from the prog. side of things with angular rhythms and odd time signatures. The album also juxtaposes ultra-lofi sounds with clear production and apathetic vocals that are paired with confident instrumental work through out.

There are many exciting contrasts on “Public Strain”. Songs that hide melody beneath layers and layers of ambiance and noise are placed next to more easily digestible material that features a catchy hook, or infectious guitar riff. The track “Bells” is simply a feedback drone that seems to come directly out of the bleak soundscape of “Penal Colony” which features, in spite of itself,  a sweet sounding vocal melody and is followed by “China Steps” with its minimalist groove and chugging, atonal guitar. There is certainly a lot of ground covered here songwriting wise. The band shows that they are not completely averse to the idea of writing a catchy hook in a recognizable form, though those catchy tunes are by no means “boring” or “ordinary”. Women put their own spin on their idea of what a song can and should be.

The sound, in general, on the album is described fairly well by the album cover. A yellowed picture with some small figures that are near completely obscured by the wash of white scratches across the surface (or perhaps it is a driving snow). The grit and graininess of that photo is the perfect analogy to describe their abrasive harmonies, harsh guitar tones, angular rhythms and the echoed and reverbed vocals that sound like Phil Spector got his murderous little hands all over them. There is something really sinister about the vocal delivery on this album. It is haunting, slightly creepy and truly unsettling, and it works perfectly with the music. The unsettling nature of the sound of the album is made more unsettling by the fact that none of these songs really have a chorus. The energy contained within each of the songs can not be hidden behind these aspect of sound though and something truly remarkable begins to happen when listening to the album repeatedly, (which is highly suggested as this album is definitely a “grower”) one begins to pick through all of the “sound” and find some truly intriguing and catchy parts. One can hold onto these parts and become absorbed in a trance of sorts, for example during the uncharacteristically “up” sounding final 2 minutes of the closing track “Eyesore”. Also, speaking to the lo-fi sound are “Heat Distraction” and “China Steps” that both open with bass and drums recorded from what sounds like a room mic replete with the noisy squeak of the kick drum pedal and “Untogether”, which begins by sounding as if someone started the tape after the band had already begun to play.

Women - "Public Strain"

The opening track seems to function as an anacrusis to the proper opening of the album. “Can’t You See” is a slow burning, contemplative and nearly ambient track while “Heat Distraction”, which follows, is a driving and disorienting song that is catchy, bright and radio-friendly(er) despite it being somewhat more cerebral from a compositional standpoint. “Can’t You See” shares with “Bells” a foundation in ambiance, though the veiled ambiance of the opening track is abandoned in the latter track for total unabashed guitar feedback hum and growl with organ-like overtones ringing out through a cloud of sound.

The most abrasive, in your face, and Sonic Youth-y track is the turbulent “Drag Open”. The vocals are nearly covered by the barrage of buzzing guitars, whereas “Locust Valley”, with its meandering arpeggios, sounds like the kind of 2 guitar counterpoint that Radiohead favors on their song “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”. “Venice Lockjaw” is the closest that the band gets to writing a ballad as it is another slow burning track that continues to build, while closing track “Eyesore” is another candidate for heavy college radio rotation.

Women sound like a modern band with old school production values. The reverb and sound in general is straight out of the 60’s much in the same way that Best Coast tries to capture the Phil Spector  girl group “wall of sound”. But Women isn’t nearly the same as Best Coast. There is something intriguing and sinister in their sound, something slightly creepy and disturbing about the vocals, something unsettling about the structure of the songs and all of these things are done to perfection so as to have the listener coming back for more.