Women - Public Strain

by Louise Harlow Rating:8.5 Release Date:2010-08-23

Women have turned a pretty neat trick. In Public Strain they've come pretty ruddy close to producing a collection of songs that are almost entirely extricated from their cultural context (not sure what the 'sound of 2010' may be anyhow...). This is an album which summons up spectral reminders of all that is magnificent about popular music of the last 40 years, whilst sidestepping really owing anyone a debt of reference.

Here, the guitar reigns supreme. The largely subordinate vocals of the brothers Flegel never rise above a state of interplay, and it's all rather brilliant as a result. From the off-kilter rhythmic gait of 'Heart Distraction', where the alternating glisten and twitch of fractious guitars rides atop a back-room vocal delivery, to the crisp, articulate oscillations of 'Locust Valley', the essence of Public Strain is hardwired firmly into six strings.

The album is awash with idly spun-out sonic storm clouds: 'China Steps' is a how-to in the invocation of the dystopian spirit of Sonic Youth - the ricochet of chiming guitar lines takes you by the hand for an unnerving walk in the woods, pursued by the veiled menace of a self-perpetuating bass line and disembodied vocals, bumped several notches down the hierarchy. A late-track shift brings things to teeter on the brink of wooziness, yet the percussive rattle looms large overhead to temper any emotional Achilles heel.

Spectral guitars are similarly suspended over the reverential dual vocals of 'Narrow with the Hall', the crunch and distortion of which recalls the raw illumination of Nico-era Velvet Underground. Women, however, is a band which appears to be at pains to avoid a straight forward serving-up of their intent - album opener 'Can't You See' emerges trembling and fractured through the wrong-footer grinding haze of distortion and white noise, all tremulous strings and deadpan chants. And before you realise the beautiful ache of it all, it's gone as swiftly as it came.

The bitch with Public Strain is the inaudibility caused by dialling down Patrick and Matt Flegel's vocals so low in the mix. When, by track four's 'Penal Colony', a zephyr-light guitar haze lays the vocal line bare, it's the first time you can really be certain Flegel is not recounting the contents of his shopping list; indeed, his vocal is utterly smothered in the post-punk laceration of 'Drag Open'.

The closing triumvirate of Public Strain is by far the clearest and most articulate, and packs the same clobber as its distortion-happy predecessors. 'Locust Valley' hosts a noir re-imagining of 60s pop, all wistful "ooohs" and guitar shimmer turned on its head by lyrical darkness. The beautiful comedown of 'Venice Lockjaw' deftly illustrates the potency of Women's ability is just as inherent when restrained, and Flegel's charmingly erratic vocals skitter over a down-gazing non-lullaby.

Which brings us to track 11. So you've clearly either got brass balls or a sense of humour, to stick an album manifesto like 'Eyesore' at the back of the pack. Battles' Ian Williams once said that music journalism is "like dancing to describe architecture". Short of donning a mirrorball jumpsuit and flying down a slide into a vat of gin shouting 'wwwoooeeee!' I'm at a loss to express the several levels of brilliance this track operates on.

This sprawling six minute behemoth retrospectively excuses the ambient aimlessness of 'Bells' (three minutes you'll never get back) and grants Women carte blanche to forever more heap seven sorts of brain-spoiling, bombastic shite on us if they so wish, just because they were nice enough to share this one with us. Ta.

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