In the world of alternative music, some albums are hyped to legendary statuses, some trashed and left for dead, and others just fade into obscurity. Armed with hindsight and an appreciation for all things indie, I revisit some of these albums to answer the simple yet important question: did it get what it deserved?
The Subject: Back in 2010, Canadian art rock quartet Women released their second studio album Public Strain. It was received well, with aggregate review site Metacritic rewarding it a grade of 81/100. BBC music called the album “…one of 2010’s finest LPs”, while Pitchfork media commented, “…Beneath the blizzard of noise and hiss, something’s burning”. However, a series of tragedies took Women off the list of up-and-coming acts to follow. Tensions within the band climaxed with an on-stage fist brawl that dissolved the group. More recently, lead guitarist Chris Reimer died at the young age of 26, ending any hope of the band reuniting. As a result, Public Strain was forgotten and, two years later, is rarely recognized by the indie community. Did this album deserve to get buried with the band itself? Is the music itself noteworthy at all? Does it deserve a second chance, or should it remain where it currently lies?
The Examination: In previous articles I’ve written (for now-defunct music blogs), I’ve expressed my hatred for the deconstructionist attitude many pop music enthusiasts take with defining new music. You know, how an artist’s work is described merely in terms of the trends it borrows from or archetypal artists that have seemingly influenced it. “Hmm, well, I would have to say that Nirvana is really just a combination of Pixies and Sonic Youth, whereas The Smashing Pumpkins is the sum of Nirvana and My Bloody Valentine…” Sure, such comparisons are nifty in informal conversation, yet it typically seems to take away from a true understanding of the music being discussed.
HOWEVER, my hatred for this practice most certainly does not extend to criticisms of alternative artists of the late 00s and early 10s. It seems as if the current trend in indie music is merely to “go retro” and succeed by being just too fucking cool. Whether or not I enjoy their music, it gets a tad frustrating when bands such as Yuck or Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti continuously rip on the lo-fi nostalgia of the 90s or the synth pop bravado of the 80s, respectively. These are instances of artists existing merely within the limits of their influences with little to no elaboration, and they deserve every bit of criticism they receive for it.
Enter Women’s Public Strain. Created in the epicenter of this retro trend, Public Strain can be and frequently was pinned as a throwback to Sonic Youth noise rock, Pavement acoustics, and Velvet Underground proto-punk attitude. And listening to this album, it is easy to see that these styles were great influences to the sound that Women crafted. However, dismissing it as another member of the indie retro trend is not only incorrect—it is an insult to an album that has successfully created a sound of its own and masterfully painted an image of both bleakness and beauty.
Public Strain’s sound fits in the category of lo-fi noise rock, but their soundscapes are more meticulously crafted than simple feedback and loops of distortion. Opener “Can’t You See” follows a steady bass line atop a background of guitar scratches—until a hazy wave of sound (not dissimilar to a string quartet) pierces through. Instrumental drone track “Bells” blends guitar feedback and organ so effectively that it is nearly impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. “China Steps” quickly substitutes cacophony for negative space about halfway through its run time. Battling guitars and waves of static create absolutely terrifying moods that abruptly give way to stunning yet fleeting moments.
And Public Strain is truly a gorgeous album beneath its bleakness. Reiner coaxes his guitar from stinging to subversive to ethereal with the flick of a wrist. The band employs lo fi production to create an alienating effect, rather than simply being forced to make the best of a lack of resources. Dissonant chords resolve patiently; the band knows how to push the listener to discomfort fully before giving them release. Finally, melodies are skewed and slanted, but always unique and awe-inspiring. Listening to Public Strain is not a passive experience: it is an emotional powerhouse that is not afraid to outrage.
But, most importantly, Public Strain is more than just the sum of its influences: it is the logical next step from the noise rock of Sonic Youth and the like. Never does a noise section seem like a rip from Daydream Nation, never do the guitars sound like a throwback to no wave jangle rock. Instead, these sounds are elaborated upon—sharpened to a point and hyperactive while remaining surprisingly mature. Letting Women’s sophomore release play on repeat reveals a rare album that transcends definition and becomes its own defining statement. Public Strain is a not just a great album—it is a masterpiece.
The Verdict: Underrated. Extremely underrated. Tragedies aside, this album on its own should have propelled Women to indie stardom. It is a shame that they will never have a chance to expand upon it.