July 5, 2010

Album Review: WOMEN's Public Strain

In the first decade of the 2000s, Canada became a hotbed export of massively successful indie bands. Through the recognizable sounds of Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene and Wolf Parade, it became a running joke that if it was indie and Canadian, you more or less knew what to expect from the band's music. Despite all this, Calgary's WOMEN is a band that probably isn't a household name to many (and perhaps will never be,) but that may be for the best in a day in age where your origin can pigeonhole you to certain expectations.

In 2008, the four piece released their promising self-titled debut to a modest amount of acclaim. With the help of fellow Canadian lo-fi auteur, Chad VanGaalen, WOMEN saw the band blend lo-fi pop with art rock that would soon draw them comparisons to This Heat, The Zombies and The Velvet Underground. As is the case with many debut albums, WOMEN put a lot of ideas on the table that had potential, but weren't quite perfected. It was pop-laden, but the more rockier and noisier aspects meandered in between, not completely allowing WOMEN's sound to stand out as anything particularly unique amid a sea of like-minded contemporaries in the avante-garde rock scene. With their forthcoming sophomore release, Public Strain, however, WOMEN set forth a refreshing precedent that hopefully puts a new face on what our neighbors up north have to offer.

Where their debut fell short, Public Strain is WOMEN's confident stride towards owning a sound all their own by using pop sensibilities and moments of noise as a backbone instead of its focus. It serves to accentuate their strengths in crafting unpredictable, complex art rock songs that still leave an artistically beautiful and lasting reaction on the listener. The album opens with the haunting, "Can't You See," which sees guitarist Patrick Flegal's faint vocals flail in the distance amid a ghostly subtle bass line, only to eventually be overcome by the hiss of bowed guitars and cellos. "Heat Distraction" on the other hand is a vibrant, acid-tinged guitar track that shifts time signatures compulsively throughout, which gives off a sense of paranoia and despair when matched with Flegal's fleeting uncertainty in both lyrics and vocal delivery (A theme felt in other songs such as "China Steps" and "Locust Valley," a number that could easily draw serious envy from a Daydream Nation era Sonic Youth.)

Meanwhile, "Narrow the Hall," excellently demonstrates what was stated earlier as to how WOMEN is now allowing their pop convictions to take the back seat to noisier persuasions. At first, the opening scorches with burning guitars, but then shifts into a catchy pop melody. Yet, those same scorching guitars reappear during the hook to slowly burn their way through. This same method is applied to the album closer and standout, "Eyesore," a blissful avante-pop tune which peaks during the outro as it breaks down into a frenzy of double drums and roughened pedals on blast. Of course, Public Strain also has its quieter moments that can compete just as well with its edgier ones. "Penal Colony" is melancholy and simplistic, based around just one guitar prodding while another reverberates along the way using the echoed vocals as its vessel. "Bells" doesn't even need words to capture that same feel of fear and haunting, as it gradually hums along delicately for three minutes straight, yet feels like the blink of an eye in terms of length.

There is an ethereal autumnal feel to Public Strain in the way WOMEN use manipulated guitars and pedals to engulf each track's alluring points with darkness and confinement. They've chosen to devour the pop simplicity that prevailed on their debut with a new found strength of slow burning noise, yet they don't necessarily torch it into ashes. Instead, WOMEN leave blackened fragments of pop behind amid the flame of experimental rock, which serve to engage the listener from the very moment Public Strain begins softly and ultimately ends in a fury. Combining both the worlds of accessibility and artistry, WOMEN have made a breakout album that will offer new and continuous rewards with each listen, challenging both your patience and appreciation, which by these standards makes them the best thing to come out of Canada since...

WOMEN's Public Strain will be released August 31, 2010 on Jagjaguwar Records.

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