Women’s self-titled 2008 release starts with a click. A four-track tape recorder turns on, tape hiss starts rolling, some studio clamor, and then a clunky acoustic guitar line appears suddenly as if out of the mist. The great thing about that album (my personal fav. of 2008) was while it was not unlike other great lo-fi drone-pop albums of that year (Pumice, Hospitals, etc…) it had the most readily accessible and bedrock-solid pop hooks glinting deep below the trappings of an aesthetic so bent on burying those qualities. They were simply the best. Still are.
With Public Strain, the Canadian quartet, again produced by maestro Chad Vangaalen, don’t feel trapped by any sort of aesthetic. While Women let you know what they were working against, the first 5 seconds of the unequivocably grand Public Strain informs you of what they are working with. “Can’t You See” starts with alternating channels of feedback drenched squallor over the squeaks and squaks of a bowed cello and guitar are reminesecnt of John Cale’s hellish orchestra on “Heroin”. The Velvet Underground influences don’t stop there. Patrick Flegel’s vocal delivery is deliciously deadpan, but never sounds phoned in or bored. He reaches near pleading in the refrain “can’t you see!”. Women know how to follow up an incredible introduction. “Heat Distraction” follows with an expected ramping up of the tension and tempo with a beguilingly pretty song that somehow balances outright prettiness with a searingly ugly neck-bending guitar line that rips across the chorus but manages to return the song just as it left it.
With both poles of their sound established only two songs in, Women are pretty much free to do whatever they want. For as many “Heat Distraction” and “Drag Opens” that turn up the discordance with fantastically noisy, cheese grater shredded guitar work, there are tracks like “Penal Colony” and “Venice Lockjaw” that are quite possibly two of the most beautiful musical documents of 2010. Ballads in the truest sense of the word. The delicate interplay between Patrick Flegel and Chris Reimer are on full display here, diving in and out between each other with a sense of restraint that is so self-apparent it is shocking that Women would ever try to bury such moments under the omnipresent pall of tape hiss.
Moments like these were in heavy abundance with Women, but you had to work for them. While obviously not ones for grandstanding or admitting that anything they produce is beyond simple artistic expression, Public Strain feels like a huge thank you to fans for believing, or simply for putting up with them. While it is difficult to top such a massively brilliant album as their debut, Public Strain manages to do so in spades. This no doubt one of the best albums of 2010.