In most every substantial review I’ve read thus far of Women’s Public Strain, the word “gray” has been utilized in at least some fashion to describe the overriding mood of the record. And it’s true, the color palette for this sophomore album from the Canadian indie-rock band falls somewhere between the lines of calcified chrome and putrid rust. So while gray is certainly apt, I’m actually feeling more of a dank, out-of-Cold-Storage metallurgic property coursing through this record’s DNA. In any case, it’s difficult to put your finger on, and Women are probably accurately perceived as elusive in regards to both process and intention. This has resulted in music with a healthy staying power, and as far as my own habits are concerned, I haven’t listened to a whole lot of albums more in the last two years than the band’s self-titled debut. As excellent a bow for modern indie-rock as one could’ve hoped, Women tempted curious ears with an outstanding lead single (“Black Rice”), yet surprisingly utilized the resulting buzz as a conduit for an album which touched on everything from ear-mulching noise to heart-swelling drones. Public Strain evidences a band with similar tendencies, but with a much firmer grasp on dynamics and an overriding commitment to an album-length sonic environment.
It’s not simply a case of Women featuring the better standalone songs and Public Strain being the better album-album, though that is partially the case. What makes Public Strain so fascinating and thus far so addictively re-listenable is the way the band has weaved all their best tendencies into a perfect, two-arc song cycle where production never takes a back seat to the songwriting, and vice versa. These songs, recorded dryly but vigorously by Canadian art-pop luminary Chad VanGaalen (who also produced their debut), elevate simultaneously on the back of distinct sonics and cyclical songwriting. The defining characteristic of this approach continues to be the intertwining duel guitars of frontman Patrick Flegel and Christopher Reimer; their contrasting lines snake and contort into all sorts of odd shapes, leading essentially as melodies yet never constricting themselves by falling back on traditional structures.
Along with the album’s blearily evocative covert art, opener “Can’t You See” sets the sonic template for the album in both title and execution. Public Strain is a dense, claustrophobic listen, the aural spectrum extending through but mostly living in the middle distance, yet Vangaalen and the band till the soil so deliberately that they manage to turn up all sorts of fascinating details in the process. Sand the edges and turn the dial a few degrees toward the mid-range and you’d end up with a tired, flat morass reminiscent of The Suburbs. Thankfully, Women are a much more discerning and cerebral band than much of what’s getting passed off as indie-rock nowadays, and from there on out each track appropriately creeps up on the listener, in many cases segueing indecipherably from one to the next, moving from formless to sturdy as often as from sparse to cacophonous.
The one structural through-line is the band’s continued adherence to minimalism. And like the best minimalist art-rock band’s who’ve preceded them—from Swans to Big Black and Shellac, to early Pavement to, of course, the Fall—Women have preternaturally mastered the ability to extract of their labyrinth patterns myriad variations on the kind of magnetically arrayed sensory details that keep the listener returning in hopes of uncovering minutiae left undiscovered. I’m thinking specifically of the way Matthew Flegel sneaks a 1950’s-inspired bass line beneath the clanking surface of “Narrow with the Hall”, or the treble-heavy bits of guitar buckshot which nearly harmonize in the high-end of the otherwise punishing “Drag Open”, or the way “Locust Valley” saves arguably the album’s best vocal melody for a fleeting but surprisingly lucid bridge. These moments, however, exist in the album’s crevices, and there certainly isn’t anything on Public Strain that’s going to hook the curious the way “Black Rice” so casually managed to. It’s telling that the record’s first single, “Eyesore”, is not only sequenced last, but is also its longest and most restlessly constructed individual piece. Befitting a band so capably built for the long haul, then, Public Strain is at once elusive, tantalizing and occasionally even frustrating. [84/100] [Published: 10.18.10]