The Calgary band’s second and final record remains an adrenaline-fuelled rush.
As the end the aughts’ first decade drew closer, it was clear to me my musical tastes were veering far from the oft-trodden, manicured road of melodic alterna-pop, towards denser, noisier terrain. Artists whose previous work did absolutely nothing to excite me started making my go-to records, while all-time favourites left me craving a sound that was less safe and sanitary. I wanted music that was dirty, and if it was shambolic and chaotic, all the better.
Calgary’s Women didn’t do much to impress me with their 2008 self-titled debut. I remember thinking at the time that it all felt a little too schizophrenic for my tastes — noisy art-rock one moment and psychedelic garage rock the next (a sound and style that, ten years on from Women, I’ve embraced). But in 2010, my personal life was filled with dissonance and dirt, so I approached Women’s sophomore (and final, as it turned out) album Public Strain with an open mind and a desire to discover something that would hook me.
It turned out the hook on Public Strain was the melodic hooks buried under all the feedback rubble and sonic refuse. Living and breathing just below “Narrow With The Hall”’s feedback drone is a toe-tapping melody that would be right at home on a 60s British Invasion a-side single. “Penal Colony” turns down the noise altogether, letting rare melodic moments breathe, giving the song its sombre tone. It reminds me of the way early stereo records sounded when you turned the fader knob all the way to the left or right: familiar but with an essential element missing. “Penal Colony” seamlessly flows into the instrumental “Bells”, whose buzzy drone signals a return of Women’s creepier vibe, building musical tension that is never released. It acts as a bridge between the sunnier disposition of Public Strain‘s first half and the second half’s darker, maladjusted personality.
“China Steps” is reminiscent of mid-80s Sonic Youth in the way its sound scraps are pasted together to make something greater than the sum of its parts. What’s grown more evident in the intervening years is that Women were never content with sonic references to the past. Before any particular song or sound became too comfortable, they’d take it into unexpected territory. Public Strain is less a thrill ride of unexpected pleasures and more a journey of tentative steps around dark corners.
In hindsight, Public Strain was the gateway music that eventually led me to embrace the shambolic beauty of artists like Jock Tears, The Cyrillic Typewriter, WHIMM, and Women’s successor, Preoccupations. Back in 2010, Public Strain wasn’t the type of album I ever imagined liking, let alone loving. Some eight years on, I’m still hesitant about using a hyperbolic word like “love” because it suggests admiration and affection. Listening to it today, with the knowledge that guitarist Chris Reimer unexpectedly died in his sleep in 2012 and that it would be the last record of Women’s tumultuous career, Public Strain and the music it inspired elicits an apprehensive, slightly fearful response in me. It’s not the feedback, drone, and dense art-rock that I’m craving, it’s the adrenaline rush I get from the music that has me hooked.
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