The hype building up to it was relatively small, so Women's dynamic first record came out of nowhere. Not since TV on the Radio's Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes had a debut been as nervously energetic and singular as Women was. For an ever-shifting half-hour, that album refused to pick a sound, and the band itself proved capable of handling buzzing rock, angular pop, and drifting sound experiments with shaky but sure hands.
So if I tell you that the new album, Public Strain, aims to bring out more of the band's pop sensibilities (which is what the label claims), then I won't be preparing you for what you'll hear on the record. At all. In an era where we invent new genres to lump people together ("chillwave," really?), Women continue to evade easy description. They're a bracing rock band, sort of. They're pop experimentalists, but not really. They're noisemakers, but they never forget the hook. One thing is clear, though, on Public Strain: Whatever the hell you call what they do, it is excellent.
The first thing you'll notice about the new record is its density. I don't mean that it's a difficult record, but just that everything here feels so substantial. Even on a droning instrumental number like "Bells," their sound has too much roiling heft to call it ambient. The haunting buzz of "Can't You See," which has no percussion whatsoever, manages to thump just as hard as, say, the jangling "Narrow With the Hall." Song to song, the album veers wildly down different musical alleys, but the difference on this record is that the nervous rattle of Women is replaced with a clear-eyed and sturdy confidence.
This new comfort in their own skin comes out best on Public Strain when they step out of the echoing murk. "Penal Colony" is still wrapped in a thin gauze, but mostly it's a clear sunburst of warm guitar tones and striking vocal melodies. "I know that it's hard to go," keens singer Patrick Flegel, pulling on each note to a breaking point, like he's trying like hell to stay. Later in the record, after the infectiously unruly skronk of "Drag Open," Women cleanses the palate once again with the shimmering guitars and understated percussion of "Locust Valley."
But nothing better displays the band's considerable and varied strengths than the epic album closer, "Eyesore." It starts with dusty, crowded guitars ringing over Flegel's vocals, but it isn't long before those sharp notes grow and peak into spiking chords. Behind it all, the drums and bass chug along at an increasingly tense pace. The song manages to compile all the band's tangents -- the atmosphere of their noise tracks, the angular riffs of their pop numbers, and the sheer rock band drive always lurking around the corner -- into their best, most expansive track yet, and one of the best songs of the year, period.
Public Strain improves on Women in every way, which is no small feat. It's 13 minutes long than its predecessor, but Women doesn't use the extra time to spread out. The band keeps the tension up by building the various lean sounds of that record into new, more muscular variations. In doing so, these guys prove themselves one of the most versatile and unpredictable bands around. So you can try and stuff Public Strain into any group you like, as long as one of those groups is "Best Albums of 2010."
On their well-received eponymous debut, Women vacillated between experimental noise and rattling pop songs. But where their pop sensibilities melted into that album's overall dissonance, they're trying to shift that balance on their sophomore effort, Public Strain. While the sonic experimentation remains, the band is trying to bring its songcraft and tight melodies to the forefront on this record. According to the members, though, this focus on structure hasn't pinned their sound down at all. The album features balladry butted up against krautrock, and the moody atmosphere of cellos crashing into terse, winding guitars. So it seems that the restlessness that garnered them so much attention will remain intact on Public Strain, we'll just have to see what shape it takes the second time around.
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