Monday, October 11, 2010

Public Strain - Women

Public Strain

Flemish Eye Records.

SCQ Rating: 86%

Pretention is a matter of dates. Those who argue between worthy innovation and been-there bullshit are slipping down a subjective wash, divided by musical knowledge and general preferences. About two weeks ago, a showdown concerning pretention kicked up on No Ripcord over its review of Public Strain, Women’s sophomore album, which was described as “auditory maliciousness”. Yet for a record with such a comprehensive blueprint for divisiveness, it’s strange that Public Strain’s relationship to lo-fi – a focus-point in many of the readers’ colorful comments – lies at the center of debate. Unlike the contest between innovation and pretention, there’s a tangible difference separating orchestration from noise, premeditation from experimentation.

Treat ‘Can’t You See’ as the debate’s official litmus test: if all you hear over the course of the opener’s three-minutes and forty-one seconds is off-key screeching and plodding bass, well, nobody should argue that this record isn’t for you. For the rest of us: yes, Public Strain has lo-fi’s elusiveness but only as a playful tool to position these songs within earshot or frustratingly beyond. The argued-over ‘Penal Colony’ ascribes to similar subdued effects first heard in ‘Can’t You See’, but feels warm and aquatic as if Jim O’Rourke had taken over sound-duties. Instead it’s Chad VanGaalen behind the boards, stretching strings, laying down warm keys and recording some of Women’s most pristine rock jams. Whether you buy into VanGaalen’s blizzard of drones or not, the merits of lo-fi needn’t come up; there isn’t any four-track tape-hiss or untrained static being wielded here.

Speaking of O'Rourke: Sonic Youth must love this album, and not because the two bands share lo-fi as an icebreaker. Women’s songwriting compliments the Thurston Moore-led outfit’s exceptional approach to pop music, rebuilding the genre’s foundations with scathing arrangements that would sound self-hating to most pop purists. Bass-driven grooves cement ‘Narrow With the Hall’ and vicious call-and-answer guitar-spikes surf ‘China Steps’ to a calming resolution, showing Public Strain’s considerable thaw; one that pierces VanGaalen’s desolate atmospheres with rays of clearheaded (but still rightly soggy) pop sensibilities. None of these sonic parallels tread on Sonic Youth’s history in the least and yet elements of this uneven, patience-testing sophomore by Women strike mirrored threads of genius that pepper E.V.O.L. or even Sister.

Some hooks are nearly inaudible, but their set-up and repetitions are felt in tiny collisions, as how the bass and guitar finish each other’s thoughts in ‘Heat Distraction’. Otherwise it’s the deceiving nature of Public Strain’s negative space that transforms these initially underwhelming valleys (‘Can’t You See’, ‘Penal Colony’) into wondrous slow moments which, through no accident, reveal their faults as charms we’d never really considered before. In some cases, listeners may require closing highlight ‘Eyesore’ to put all of Public Strain’s wayward instrumentation into perspective. There is a slight learning-curve here. Even in the presence of ‘Drag Open’ and its tremendous ferocity, I acknowledge that the punk-as-fuck DIY spirit can only bring you so far. Teamed with VanGaalen, Women have transgressed lo-fi for the greater good, delivering one of the year’s most quietly affecting indie-rock records.

Woman / Eyesore by reesindiemusic


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this review. Though I'm discriminating in my music tastes, I like to try nearly everything and don't consider myself a snob. Honestly critical, but not close-minded and not a subscriber to any one scene.

When I've read underwhelmed or angry reviews for "Public Strain" it inspires doubt in the raw and slippery brilliance I've heard since the first listen, but reading this article, I'm glad to know that others can find the simple, and yes melodic, pleasures that this LP has to offer. A "learning curve" is a good way to describe how one has to embrace (and hopefully learn to revel in) the noisy exteriors, but these songs are so damn lovable on repeat listens that it's hard for me to swallow complaints of Women being willfully off-putting with "Public Strain."

SCQ said...

"Slippery brilliance" is a great assessment of Public Strain. Thanks very much for reading and commenting.

I sort of enjoy people's surface-level skepticism because it allows the rest of us to continue treating this record with a cult-like fandom.