Album Reviews

Women – Public Strain

(Jagjaguwar) UK release date: 23 August 2010

Identifying musical trends can be a dangerous business, but it seems safe to suggest that a certain strand of indie has emerged over the last few years, merging fuzzy nostalgia with noise pop. Some of these bands seem to look fondly on the C86 era (Best Coast, Wild Nothing, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart); others seem to have combined a love for The Beach Boys with strains or orchestrated noise (No Age, Deerhunter, Wavves, perhaps even Animal Collective).

Women, a band inevitably consisting entirely of men and hailing from Calgary, fall into this latter, perhaps more radical, camp – combining the melodic and symphonic characteristics of a group remembered for their highly sophisticated symphonic pop with the deliberately sketchy, sometimes abrasive sound of lo-fi recording techniques. At times on their second album, Public Strain, Women seem to have made some further steps towards integrating the two halves of their sound, but their predominant characteristic is a kind of wilful disruption.

The group’s synthesis is perhaps at its strongest when rhythm takes a back seat. The marvellous Penal Colony segues seamlessly with Bells, a near-hallucinogenic instrumental consisting of long, unbroken notes and varying textures. The result is a powerful sensation of weightlessness and floating, as if Women are striving to defy gravity. The mellow, reflective Venice Lockjaw is considerably more appealing than its title implies, although it still comes with a peculiar element of otherworldliness, as if it’s all based on imagined worlds and feelings.

All this hazy, dreamy material does not preclude plenty of excitement and unpredictable twists and turns elsewhere. Women are adept at taking their tracks through a variety of different moods and atmospheres. China Steps opens savagely, with thunderous, aggressive guitar chords and flailing cymbals. Yet midway through, it takes the same insistent two note riff and refashions it as something gentle and reflective. It’s a clever trick that is almost repeated on Drag Open, which opens with harsh, dissonant chords against a driving, motorik beat before veering off into somewhat sweeter, more gently melodic territory. The superb Heat Distraction is rhythmically adventurous, angular, awkward and yet also gripping. It’s always difficult to guess where these songs might eventually end up, or through what kind of landscape they might pass.

Sometimes the group manage to bury the real abrasion in the background, as on Untogether, but most of the time the combination of discomforting guitar lines and gathering storms of noise occasionally overpower the group’s melodic sense. The emotional impact of this music is sometimes disorientating or alienating, but that is probably the intention. It’s mostly impossible to discern the lyrics or comprehend their themes. Somehow this doesn’t matter, given the striking, weird and often turbulent music beneath. With their sweeter moments, Women create a false sense of security, before revealing something threatening and unnerving. Their aesthetic is perhaps best encapsulated on the epic closer Eyesore, where memorable hooks and Phil Spector drumbeats juxtapose with excessive reverb and heavily treated guitars. Public Strain is a curious, restless album but one with plenty of rewards.

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Women – Public Strain