There is a small group of artists making music today that simply cannot sit still. Their need to create is so overwhelming that it cannot be confined to simply one band or project. Take a look at Robert Pollard, who operates under no less than 10 different names as part of collaborations with different people. He’s been averaging about 2-3 full lengths a year for quite awhile now, with at least two Guided By Voices records due this year. Or examine Spencer Krug, who has been part of Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown, Swan Lake and currently Moonface – all within the last three years. Bradford Cox, too, hasn’t gone a full year since 2007 without releasing a record under either the Deerhunter or Atlas Sound name. Soon to be added to this elite collective might well be Kyle Thomas. In the last few years, he’s played important roles in the J. Mascis stoner metal side project Witch, odd folk band Feathers, and indie pop trio Happy Birthday. He’s also struck out on his own, releasing music under the name King Tuff. He put out his first solo record Was Dead in 2008, and finally found the time to make a follow-up this year. King Tuff appropriately made the new album self-titled, because it marks the first time most will hear his work. His debut came out on Teepee Records and was manufactured in such a limited quantity that you have to pay a pretty penny on eBay for a copy. Now signed to Sub Pop, his platform has expanded significantly, as has his sound. Where he blasted through tracks before with a ramshackle lo-fi punk style, he’s tempered that now by exploring elements of ’50s, ’60s and ’70s rock and pop. The guitars are still as fuzz-laden as ever, but the record doesn’t race to the finish line like it’s got somewhere to be. A song like “Unusual World” coasts along at a relaxed mid-tempo pace and incorporates synths and xylophone for added flavor. “Evergreen” rides on the wings of a summer breeze, drifting so lightly it almost feels like it belongs on another album. And piano ballad “Swamp of Love” comes off like an Elton John torch song filtered through Bob Dylan glasses. Outside of those softer or quieter moments, King Tuff is a whole lot of fun to listen to. “Anthem” carves out a grand place for itself as described. One of the best singles so far this year might just be “Bad Thing”, which blasts along with the speed of a powerboat and has a candy-coated chorus that will stick in your head for weeks. Meanwhile “Stranger” plays around with sounds previously reserved for T. Rex or Lynyrd Skynyrd. These record might not have a whole lot of weird experiments going for it, but what it lacks in sheer oddity it more than makes up for in strong composition. This is a collection of dynamic songs you’re supposed to enjoy and not think too much about. In other words, it’s a great record for summer. Sometimes you don’t need anything more than that.
Broken down to its most simplistic form, there’s really only one Guided By Voices. That version of the band existed from about 1993-96, and crafted some of the best gritty, dirty and hardcore rock of not only that but really any decade. Records like Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes are legendary for their no-holds-barred lo-fi aesthetic, setting the bar exceptionally high for many other bands of their ilk around that time. When you do so many drugs and essentially treat life as one massive party, at some point things are going to break down, which is why the “classic” GBV lineup ceased to exist after Under the Bushes Under the Stars. The band kept it up in spite of a few personnel changes, all the way through 2004 but really operating under a much lower profile than before. Still, the last GBV album Half Smiles of the Decomposed drew attention mostly because Pollard proclaimed it to be the band’s final recording, and a lengthy farewell tour in support of it was met with rabid enthusiasm. It only took 6 years for a reunion to take place, courtesy of Matador Records’ 21st Anniversary party. The real excitement was that it’d be the ’93-’96 “classic” lineup getting back together. As things go, that one-off show led to a full sold out tour for 2011, though Pollard was quick to point out early on that it probably wouldn’t amount to anything more than that. Unlike, say, Pavement, who got back together in 2010, toured and then went their separate ways again, it seems GBV have a little more life left in them. Enter Let’s Go Eat the Factory, a new Guided By Voices album announced late last year and released to start 2012. It’s the first record to feature the band’s classic lineup since 1996, and the first under the band name since 2004.
Here’s the thing though: In spite of Guided By Voices, if you look at the recorded output of Robert Pollard alone, you’re already overwhelmed by material. He’s been releasing solo records since 1996, and has averaged about 2 full lengths per year since 2006. That’s not even counting EPs and more than a dozen side projects he’s had a hand in the last 10 years. With such a deluge of material, there’s bound to be plenty of crap in there, and it’s unlikely even the biggest of fans can keep up with all of it. Quantity, not necessarily quality. Does that make GBV stuff any better or more special than everything else? Towards the end of the band’s initial run it might as well have been Pollard and a few hired hands anyways, which might also bear some explanation why those records weren’t as good as the early stuff. The benefit of having the classic lineup in effect is how much of an actual BAND dynamic it creates. They’re more than just Pollard because Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, Greg Demos and Kevin Fennell are all dynamic musicians in their own rights. They bring Pollard’s ADD-addled vision to life in a way no other backing players have before, and that’s one of the big reasons why those early records were such a success. It’s what also makes Let’s Go Eat the Factory such an exciting and anticipated album, the hope that perhaps it might recapture and extend the legacy of those early days. The good news is that it very much succeeds in feeling like the GBV of old. The bad news is that it just barely misses the objective of equalling or exceeding the quality of their best efforts.
Those markedly familiar with the “classic” Guided By Voices material will feel an instant familiarity with Let’s Go Eat the Factory, spurred primarily by the band’s return to a 4-track lo-fi style of recording, leaving much of the album covered in dirt and low budget charm. Still, there’s plenty of evidence of more modern recording bits in there as well, particularly as nothing sounds scuffed up enough to be indecipherable or a real challenge to listen to. The underlying sheen on some of these tracks adds to the record’s character though, and in many ways the ease at which it all goes down suggests that maybe there’s an angle towards first-timers as a way to suck them in before they truly blow it out. The first half of the album is surprisingly tight and catchy, everything from “Laundry and Lasers” through “Doughnut for a Snowman” and “The Unsinkable Fats Domino” certainly make for some of the best GBV songs in over a decade. They’re the more straightforward hits, designed to tap the power-pop vein in your ears. And while Pollard certainly has plenty of material to work with, as he always does, the one that truly stands out and steps up on this album is Tobin Sprout. The guy simply destroys on every track he contributes, from the bouncy “God Loves Us” to the spindly bifurcation of “Spiderfighter”, he proves himself to be the unsung hero of the classic era lineup. It’s almost as if he was anxiously awaiting the opportunity to shine, while in many respects Pollard spends portions of the album trying to get his bearings working amongst a group of guys that actually have a say for once. It leads to a couple of unfortunate accidents in tracks like “Chocolate Boy” and “The Big Hat and Toy Show”, but as with any GBV record, mistakes come with the territory and if you don’t like one song, just wait 90 seconds for the next one.
The best moments of Let’s Go Eat the Factory are really when the band tries to push beyond giving lip service to their legacy and tries to prove they’ve learned something these last 15 or so years the lineup has been on break. The spiky “My Europa” hovers dangerously close to a capella territory, with only Pollard’s vocal and some quick guitar picking to back him up. It’s a great showcase to examine just how much the guy’s voice has changed (and in many ways improved) over the years while also generating some catchy sing-along mojo with it. Meanwhile, offbeat rock songs like “Imperial Racehorsing” and “Cyclone Utilities (Remember Your Birthday)” take a lot of notes from the later incarnations of the band but do remarkably well by being wrestled down with classic era tropes and some unexpected left turns. It seems almost fitting that the record ends after 20 songs with its longest and perhaps most prescient track, “We Won’t Apologize for the Human Race”. It feels like a combination of past, present and future Guided By Voices, driven by the suggestion that they truly are back and are ready to stir shit up again. Naturally, the band has already announced they’ve got another full length already recorded that will be out sometime in late spring/early summer. One can only hope that as they continue to work together and restore their once toxic bonds that it will lead to more material truly worthy of being called “classic” once again.
There was a time when bedroom pop was viewed as something hot and exciting. It was one of those genre twists people were exceptionally excited about for a time, the thought being that anybody with a halfway decent microphone and the ability to craft heartwarming songs could do so on the cheap and straight out of their homes. This was also a great way to discover the freshest and rawest talent, people that might not have an official record deal, but probably deserve one. tUnE-yArDs was discovered in that fashion, and Merrill Garbus hasn’t looked back since. But like the lo-fi movement, in which it was cool to like degraded-sounding recordings, the formidable concept of bedroom pop has fallen out of favor in many circles, and everybody from Toro y Moi to Neon Indian have been adding all sorts of studio polish to their sophmore efforts in response. Still, one of the better things about shifting away from that trend is now we don’t have to hear about every new artist trying to “get discovered”, whether they’re good or not. Now, the cream rises to the top. The freshest cream these days is being served up by Boise musician Trevor Powers, who operates under the moniker of Youth Lagoon. His debut record “The Year of Hibernation” is truly a solo affair pieced together outside of any recording studio, and for once the sheer insular quality of the whole thing feels like a mistake.
See, unlike so many artists that bring a hushed intimacy to their poorly recorded debuts, Youth Lagoon’s “The Year of Hibernation” very much appears to be big and expansive in nature. It’s deceptive about that though, as many of the songs are sparsely composed and start slow with a simple instrument and vocals. They never seem to stay that way, because at some point almost all of them break open to something far larger and more intense. It is at those points where the bedroom nature of these tracks becomes an issue, as the songs appear to want to break out of that small space and into an open field where they can truly breathe. Call it the “post-rock effect” for the pop set, in which intensity builds to a release, only in this case the release isn’t reaching its full potential. The issue is apparent from the very first track “Posters”, which gets by for 2 minutes on just a quivering synth and Powers’ yearning vocals before eventually smashing through a brick wall with a heavy drum machine beat and some rather engaging electric guitar. It seems to recognize its limitations, though you’re left with the unerring sense that with a touch more room things could really take off. That small problem aside, this record still manages to massively succeed thanks to how easily likeable and blissfully addictive it can be.
In writing songs for Youth Lagoon, Powers has said he wanted to use the project to help explain the anxiety he felt about certain things in his life, because finding the right words in conversations proved to be confusing to others. While a number of songs have that sort of frame to them (see “Afternoon” in particular), they also tackle easily recognizable and relatable topics like relationships and nature. It’d be easy to assume that these songs about anxiety and breakups would make for a pretty depressing record, but what’s so charming about “The Year of Hibernation” is how it plays off the idea of resilience – that we may encounter any number of problems in our lives, but we not only survive them, but persevere. It is, like the music itself, insular in how we may be emotionally crippled and shut ourselves off from the world by staying in bed all day, but also expansive as we dream of sunny days, open fields, fireworks and above all, true happiness. “I have more dreams than you have posters of your favorite teams,” Powers sings on “Cannons”. That sentiment appears to echo a number times over the course of the album, and it plays a big part in winning us over.
“When I was 17, my mother said to me/don’t stop imagining/the day that you do is the day that you die,” he declares in the chorus of “17”. From the sound of it on “The Year of Hibernation” and purely from an age perspective, the 22-year-old Powers isn’t anywhere near death, and instead comes across like somebody ready to have a long life making music. If all this record needs is a proper recording studio to fully flesh out Youth Lagoon’s songs, hopefully the next one will break out of the bedroom both literally and figuratively. For the moment though, we’re content to stay buried beneath the sheets, letting our imaginations run away with us.
At this point, I’m pretty sure the lo-fi “revival” is dead. It introduced us to a whole new host of bands a couple years back, everyone from Vivian Girls and Dum Dum Girls to Wavves and Times New Viking, and then naturally segued into the “glo-fi” electronica movement. Now even glo-fi is essentially done too, as we wait for the next big sound to strike. The one lesson learned from all these trends is that some bands get left in the dust when the hype cycle changes, while others adapt and remain within the realm of relevancy. To put it another way, the good bands are smart enough to survive. For most, the recipe for continued success is simple: add fidelity. Glo-fi bands like Washed Out and Toro y Moi have upgraded to a much cleaner sound and their latest records have improved on what was already there. The same can be said for lo-fi groups like the Smith Westerns and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. It is from this mold that Male Bonding have taken their cue with their sophmore effort “Endless Now”. Their debut “Nothing Hurts” was ear-catching lo-fi punk rock, but now thanks to some sonic upgrades, the Brits are operating on a far cleaner level, to the point where their sound is best described as pop-punk.
By saying that “Endless Now” is a pop-punk record, a certain stigma almost automatically becomes attached to it. The most popular pop-punk bands of the last several years may enter your mind, everyone from All American Rejects to Blink 182 and Fall Out Boy fall underneath that umbrella. It’s worth noting that you could also call bands like The Jam and Teenage Fanclub pop-punk as well, even if there’s a clear difference between what they’re doing and what other more popular bands of the genre are doing. The point is, Male Bonding wind up on the smarter, more indie side of this genre fence, and it’s not simply because they haven’t had a worldwide hit single (yet). The basic parts – quick and loud electric guitars blasting out power chords mixed with supremely catchy hooks – remain the same, but the difference lies in approach. The guys in Male Bonding are no doubt a lot of fun, but their music isn’t always on the brightest of topics. The murky, spatial cover of “Endless Now” most definitely suggests something far less than upbeat is contained within, and it’s not lying in the least. The last album “Nothing Hurts” was ultimately about being beaten to a pulp both emotionally and physically but ultimately coming out the other side a hardened shell of a person – surviving but still wrecked. This new record continues a similar form of torture, only this time you can understand the lyrics better and the melodies are occasionally exploiting more bouncy, fun energy rather than merely grinding guitars.
The most fascinating artifact on this album has to be first single “Bones”, which in full album form is nearly twice as long as any other track on the record. For 6.5 minutes you’re buried beneath chord after chord, like waves crashing down on top of you in rapid succession. Considering the in-and-out 3 minutes much of the rest of the album appears to push, this is the one moment where you can clearly hear the band attempting something extreme and largely making it work. Similar things can be said about “The Saddle”, the shortest track on the album, save for the last 30 second “Untitled” epilogue. After spending so much of the record bouncing from chord to chord and barely taking a moment to breathe, “The Saddle” goes softer, quieter and acoustic. There’s even a small bit of piano in there to bring some added warmth to the song. Outside of those clear standout moments, there’s not a whole lot else that blatantly draws attention to itself. That doesn’t mean it’s plain or bad, it’s just far more direct and cohesive in approach. You can get “Tame the Sun” trapped in your head for a week and then on your 10th listen through “Channeling Your Fears” will be the new track du jour. That’s a big part of what makes this band and this genre of music quite a bit of fun to listen to when done properly.
If “Endless Now” is lacking in anything, it’s probably surprises. On “Nothing Hurts”, there were tempo and stylistic shifts that were partly unrest from the band but they were also unexpected. There was a certain thrill not knowing exactly what angle they were going to take on the very next track. This new streamlined approach doesn’t leave room for such messing about, so that tension gets diffused. But on the big plus side, the much sharper sound brings with it that shiny pop edge that was all too often buried beneath layers of poor quality equipment. Producer John Agnello does a fantastic job ensuring that Male Bonding sound better overall, but never reach that squeaky clean point where it becomes a betrayal of their intentions. “Endless Now” has the distinct disadvantage of arriving with pre-formed expectations and anticipation thanks to how incredible “Nothing Hurts” really was. In fact, some of the more die-hard fans of the band may be disappointed that the guys have shaved off their musical beards and thrown on some business suits. What Male Bonding lose in early devotees as a result of this album they’ll likely make up at least twofold courtesy of their easier accessibility. It’s not selling out, it’s the rare art of fighting to remain relevant.
If you ask me, the name Unknown Mortal Orchestra sounds like something a heavy metal band would come up with. It falls somewhere along the lines of a whole mythological path that involves demons and gods and fighting outside of the realms of humanity. And yet the word “mortal” is in there, signifying purely human, even if it is preceeded by an “unknown”. In fact, that’s exactly one of the more interesting aspects about the band. A former member of the New Zealand band The Mint Chicks, Ruban Nielson moved out to Portland when they broke up and decided to quit the music business. As he searched for a legitimate job though, in his spare time he wound up creating some new music that was more messing around than it was something intended for people to hear. Still, he created the most barebones and non-descriptive Bandcamp profile that he could, and posted a couple tracks to it. Lo and behold, people listened and came inquiring about who this band was where the only information listed was that they were Portland-based. The hype built, and suddenly a normal job became less of a priority. Still, if you’re going to do music full time, live shows are a must, and Nielson couldn’t do it alone. He’s brought on a couple people to make it an actual band, and it wasn’t until recently that we discovered just who those people are. So the band name sticks to its principles for the most part. As for the orchestra, well, that’s something they can work on bringing to their next album. For their self-titled debut, the settled upon sound is that of lo-fi psychedelia with a sharp emphasis on polyblended rhythm. As you might expect, it fits them like a well-worn shirt.
The song that first got Unknown Mortal Orchestra known is the bouncy, spacey “Ffunny Ffriends”, and it appropriately opens the full length effort. It also establishes just how lo-fi this album is going to be. The percussion sounds like a live hip hop beat from the 80s looped over and over again, the guitars sound rustic with a psychedelic edge, and the vocals sound like they were recorded using a $5 microphone from Walgreens. Unlike some acts that purposely scuff up their clear sound to conform with what’s hot, this is one set of songs you know were recorded poorly in a home studio because that’s the best they could do with the money they had. The melody and the hooks still manage to seep through that shoestring budget though, which is a big reason why ears perk up when their songs are playing. Equally compelling is the second single and mid-album surprise “How Can U Luv Me”, which with its energy and funk-driven edge is awfully reminiscent of a 70s club hit. It’s one evolution past disco, but you can totally envision John Travolta getting down to it in some bell bottoms.
One of the most fascinating things about Unknown Mortal Orchestra is how the rhythms work on each song. There’s a very basic nature to every song that doesn’t waver much, if at all from the start to the end of a song. They may perform with a full or nearly full size drum kit, but not a whole lot beyond the snare is used across the record. The drums often rise above all the other elements on this self-titled album, but that’s because they serve an important function in the overall scheme of a song. Also, the arrangements are so bare-bones that it’s relatively easy to single out one part. Examine a track like “Bicycle”, in which the beat holds firmly as a mixture of kick drum, snare and shakers. It’s something that works well enough that perhaps somewhere down the road you might see an unauthorized mash-up record pairing the band with a hip hop artist a la James Blake and Drake or Jay-Z and Radiohead. Almost as compelling are Nielson’s vocals, which have an almost falsetto-like quality to them that borders on androgynous. With the goofy 60s vibe and doubled over, echo-filled harmonies of “Thought Ballune”, Of Montreal might be your easiest modern reference point, and the similarity of Nielson’s voice to Kevin Barnes’s only adds to that. Yet with the overall sonic quality and the way this record was mixed, sometimes the vocals get buried beneath a guitar riff as on “Nerve Damage!” or take on odd proportions as evidenced by “Boy Witch”. Still, the way that the singing often merges with or transforms a melody is one of the reasons why “Unknown Mortal Orchestra” works as a whole.
It’ll be interesting to see where Unknown Mortal Orchestra goes from here. With some label money now behind them and if their debut does well enough, some actual sonic quality might begin to slip into their songs. If we’ve learned anything from bands like tUnE-yArDs and Wavves in the last couple years, it’s that a higher fidelity of recording doesn’t have to harm your overall product and if the songs themselves are strong enough can even enhance it. The very old school analog way of recording this self-titled record does bring it a little extra charm in this case and is much more reminiscent of the styles at the time and era these songs are trying to evoke. Spanning only 9 tracks and clocking in around 30 minutes, the brevity of the record turns out to be one of its benefits. By no means is it perfect, but there’s definitely a quality vs. quantity thing going on that leaves little room for error and there’s very little of it as a result. A couple tracks go a little too far with an experimental bent, but primarily what you get is a rather catchy and minimalist psych-pop album from a trio of guys that appear to know exactly what they’re doing. That’s really all you need to win over plenty of hearts, minds and ears these days.
Two years ago, Black Lips reached an impasse. The fickle world of music lovers spat them out in a violent fashion akin to how the band members themselves often do with their own saliva on stage. If their 2007 album “Good Bad Not Evil” won them legions of new fans, the follow-up two years later with “200 Million Thousand” had close to the opposite effect. It seemed as if they were destined to become victims of the dreaded hype cycle, once beloved but soon after abandoned. Part of the problem with that last album (their fifth) was how content it seemed to be staying the course. The lack of ambition and conscious choice to maintain the same fuzz-riddled lo-fi sound from their last few records reeked of uninspired madness. Essentially it was a “fuck you” to those that thought Black Lips would change their sound now that they’d found success. With that plan having backfired, the band’s next move would need to be smart not only if they wanted to reclaim what they’d lost, but save what they were in danger of losing, which was their record deal. That explains why their new album “Arabia Mountain”, coldly calculated though it may be, is exactly the thing that Black Lips needed to revive everything they’d worked so hard to gain up until that point in time.
If you want to call anybody a hero in working to give Black Lips the kick in the teeth needed to make the necessary sonic adjustments for “Arabia Mountain”, Mark Ronson is the guy to point the finger at. The guy has worked with tons of people, most notably plenty of pop stars, to which he’s added a certain sheen to their sound that more often than not comes off as over polished. Still, he knows how to pull back on those reins when it’s warranted, and in the case of Black Lips, it absolutely was. You can’t go from super lo-fi to super clean without doing some serious damage to your long-time fans that love that no frills aesthetic. Yet the pairing of the two entities wasn’t nearly as earth-shattering as one might believe. Dust off some of that poorly recorded fuzz and buried underneath you’ll find a bunch of guitar pop songs. That and a mutual respect for the classic sounds of the 60s ultimately proved to be the bond necessary to bring out the best in Black Lips. Cleaner but not overly polished, lighter with more of a smirk than a frown, supercharged, addictive and more wide-ranging than ever, this is the band upgrading to version 2.0. Ronson may have had a fair share to do with it, but this record is still distinctly Black Lips through and through. These dynamic songs didn’t write and compose themselves, though somebody did throw a nice coat of wax on top to reveal the diamonds hiding underneath.
Saxophones really spice up opening track “Family Tree”, bringing a little madcap retro spice to a track that’s not only energetic, but downright danceable. One can envision girls in go-go boots on multi-colored dance floors doing what might otherwise be lovingly referred to as “The Pulp Fiction” (peace signs across the eyes). The buzzy guitar on “Modern Art” is eerily reminiscent of The Beatles or The Yardbirds, but the light touches of xylophone help bring a more contemporary feel to what’s ultimately a song about taking the wrong kind of drugs and wandering around an art gallery. If only all bad trips were this good (and addictive). The acoustic guitars providing the assist on “Spidey’s Curse” are a great addition to the track, and something that would likely have gotten lost in the mud of poor production quality in the past. If you’ve seen enough episodes of the old cartoon version of “Scooby Doo”, you’ll feel a special kinship to “Mad Dog”, primarily because it feels like one of those songs they’d play during a lengthy chase sequence where the mystery solving team keeps running and hiding from the monster that’s after them. That association isn’t brought up by the title of the song either, it’s mere coincidence, and matching that 60s-era sound doesn’t hurt either. Continuing to pull from that direction, “Raw Meat” sounds like a long-lost Ramones gem and the opening to “The Lie” comes weirdly close to copying Zeppelin’s “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” before taking a decidedly more psychedelic direction. And you’d be hard pressed to not think of The Rolling Stones when “Dumpster Dive” arrives, it apes that style oh so well. Even when their songs don’t recall specific and classic bands from the past, there’s plenty to get hooked on. “Go Out and Get It” and “New Direction” are hyper-catchy songs that will stay with you despite having so many other memorable highlights. It’s relatively easy to imagine massive crowds hearing songs like these when walking past the stage at a music festival and stopping in their tracks to keep listening.
Very legitimately, “Arabia Mountain” has suddenly become the piece de resistance for Black Lips. The winds have changed direction and now more than ever they’re on track to take over the world. They sound completely reinvigorated and more vital than ever. It’s amazing the creative spaces some artists will reach when the right sort of pressure is applied. Alternatively, “200 Million Thousand” is where an artist might go when the wrong sort of pressure is applied. When truly fighting for their livelihoods, these guys have stepped up and knocked one out in the best sort of way. Even completely ignoring the circumstances behind how they got to this point and judging this record as if it were some unknown band from Anywhere, USA, this is an album that is such a joy to listen to. Above all else, that’s the point: to have some fun, bounce around a bit, and go home tired but with melodies still running through your head. The only real issue “Arabia Mountain” has is with the sheer amount of music that’s on it. Clocking in at just over 40 minutes, it’s definitely not too long of an album, but there are probably a few too many tracks. A couple of the album’s 16 songs sound pretty similar and could have been cut without much of a problem. 12-14 songs would have been ideal, even if a 30 minute run time might have felt a little short. Quality over quantity, as the phrase goes. Other than that though, this is Black Lips operating at a level that nobody thought they could effectively reach, which is why “Arabia Mountain” is one of the most pleasant and best surprises of 2011 so far.
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.