Sometimes the weirder your influences are, the better off your art is.
Take the newest full length from Women, Public Strain – the first time I put it on (a few days ago) it confused me endlessly. The first track, drumless and squawking, sounded like the introduction to a band who wore their influences like a sandwich board on Michigan Ave: the tortured viola of the Velvet Underground’s “Black Angel’s Death Song” dubbed over Loveless-era EPs by My Bloody Valentine. A likeable formula, but also an overdone one.
The third track: 60s pop-via-Stone Roses filtered through Public Image Ltd’s “Metal Box” soundscape. Fourth track: Beach Boys melody over the dark chords of Low. Fifth track: the throbbing warm blanket of MBV fuzz.
At first the artwork did little to garner my attention, but after a precursory listen (and confusion) I looked to it for clues. Of course the clues were obscured in a sepia snow drift, but that seems to be what Women is aiming for. It’s a flurry of big names and big sounds, just like the haze of a white out. There are big flakes in this snowstorm.
Another important point to make here is that there are still people in the artwork, no matter how shaded or minuscule they are. They may be losing their battle with the elements, but their presence is still there. We instantly notice them and it absorbs us into the work with sympathy. We’ve all had an unfortunate confrontation with nasty weather, and that’s crucial. It decides how easily the viewer can become part of the work as a whole.
Are you in that frigid blizzard, or are you just looking at it?
Let me start by saying that headphones are a must with this album, though you should probably start with the volume a little further down than usual or you’ll probably make a face. That said, the experience does change when you’re engulfed by the sound, even if it means the “bitter beer face” makes an appearance.
The first sample is the third track, listed above as “Stone Roses meets PiL”, but you’ll definitely experience it the other way around. The first sound you hear before anything is a buzzsaw feedback humming. Even once the vocals kick in, they’re dripping with reverb. This is the blizzard, and through the snow you see a sunny billboard for the bouncy sound of the Madchester scene. Underneath the grime is a peppy 2-minute pop song – you just have to steep yourself in the noise to really hear it.
The second is a later track that caught my ear when I first heard it. Again the noise comes first as staccato yelps, but this time what emerges from the noise is a propulsive backbeat. Everyone moves in unison and repetition, and the energy echoes both early and late post-punks. At about 2:40, everything sort of breaks down and slows to an even sharper focus. This is when is becomes clear what the influence formula is. It’s the nervous stutter of Wire during the first half of the song and the last half pays homage to Sonic Youth, particularly on their 1987 album Sister, and even more particularly on the song “Pipeline/Kill Time”. The passage between the two sounds is never distinct, but the evolution is apparent. We never see the seams unless the band wants us to.
The tracks are not an exercise in originality, but they do serve a purpose as an exercise in catharsis and sympathy. Each passage of groaning feedback and drifting squalls serves to draw your consciousness into a state. The white noise and repetition becomes the album’s hypnotic weather, and sooner or later you find yourself in a similar state to those little black figures on the cover.
Album: Public Strain
Tracklist & Review (Allmusic)