Finding information about the band Women on the internet is tremendously difficult thanks to their name. Do a simple search and you’re more likely to find pornography than these guys. And that’s the other irony – with a band named Women, every member is male. But if you’ve been following the band since their 2008 self-titled debut album, these are things you probably already knew. What you may not have known, given the surprisingly high number of album releases from prolific artists in the past couple weeks, is that Women have quietly released their sophmore record “Public Strain”. It is yet another lo-fi psych-rock affair from the boys produced by their friend Chad VanGaalen, but there are a few changes made this time around that take the band into more fascinating territory than they’ve ever been in before.
On their debut, Women tried to balance dark, psychedelic instrumentals with lo-fi lyrical guitar pop, and they managed it surprisingly well. Their ability to push everything into a distorted fuzz no matter the approach was in part what helped it succeed. On “Public Strain”, the band’s two halves blend far more easily and effortlessly, and it makes for even more positive strides in the right direction. While none of the record is exactly easy on the ears, there are more thrills and more chills than ever before. Speaking specifically to the “chill” part of that, many of the songs on this album are slower than on the last one, and the overall mood is not just cold but frozen. The band recorded this album over a lengthy period of time, but most notably during an especially harsh Canadian winter. The album cover seems to echo that sentiment, with what looks like a massive amount of snow falling from the sky with just a light dusting on the ground. Of course instead of snow it could just be an old photograph that is massively distorted due to wear and tear. But the wintry tone speaks well to the material, as does the idea of fuzzed-out distortion. It may be tough to warm up to a record such as this, but what it lacks in warmth it more than makes up for in creative approaches to the material. There are less lyrical chorus-bound hooks here (though there are some), but more immediately compelling guitar work that sticks in your head just as well. The instrumentals have all but gone away, but in their place are a couple songs that barely any lyrics. The way they approach each track appears to be angular, starting from what feels like comfortable and familiar territory and then diverting from that in a hurry. It’s a very smart move, because not only are the songs unpredictable, but they’re also damn good.
“Public Strain” progresses in such a way that lends it well to repeat listens. “Can’t You See” starts the record almost completely adrift with nothing holding it together, but by the time “Eyesore” punches in for the final 6 minutes of the album everything feels like its in the right place. The quicker, more pop-driven songs are front-loaded to establish dominance early, but somewhere in “China Steps” there’s a spiral into dark and disturbing territory. Not that the first half of the album is light and cheery, but there are moments in later tracks like “Drag Open” and “Venice Lockjaw” that prove to be more difficult and creepy than much of what came before it. Put it this way – it’s like the difference between going to a funeral and entering a haunted house – one is sad and depressing while the other is excessively morbid to the point of scaring you. Yes, Women go for the jugular, but they’re all the better for it. Between the intensely addictive guitar work and the vocal harmonies that are gorgeously asymmetrical, there’s something about “Public Strain” that defies comparison. The best words to describe it might be to call it a “lo-fi 60’s psych-pop record that wasn’t released until today”. This might not quite reach the heights of “Album of the Year” status, nor is it as smartly crafted as similar band Deerhunter’s latest “Halcyon Digest”, but it strongly proves that Women are a force to be reckoned with. As the weather gets colder and terrible snowstorms begin to head in our direction, this record makes for a great mood-setting soundtrack. While it may very well match frozen tundra conditions outdoors, underneath its threatening and harsh exterior is an album that rewards careful and studied listens with unexpected warmth and comfort. There’s shelter and hot cocoa all set out for you, the challenge is hammering through the thick layers of ice to get it.