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November 23, 2010

Women – Public Strain + Service Animal 7″ (Jagjaguwar/Flemish Eye, 2010)

Women’s self-titled debut, released in 2008, was a puzzling jolt at first listen. Very few people had heard of the band upon its release, as they were still quite new – singer/guitarist Pat Flegel said in an interview that they “weren’t even really a band” when they recorded it – but the strength of the record, plus the fact that it was recorded and endorsed by Chad VanGaalen, helped get them initial exposure. There were some great ideas on that record, and it evidenced an able new group who were ready to take off. After its release, Women honed themselves as a band, playing over two-hundred shows in less than a year, armed at first with only “nine songs and a Devo cover,” says Flegel. Over time, new songs began to emerge in their live sets that offered an exciting glimpse of what would eventually be their second LP, Public Strain.

Whereas the debut owed a lot of its character to its brevity and VanGaalen’s non-standard recording methods, the character of Public Strain (though also recorded by VanGaalen) is quite different. The songs on this second record each provide a facet of a more detailed, cohesive statement by a band who’ve developed remarkably in two years. The opening tune, “Can’t You See,” sets a haunting initial tone, repeating its title throughout, prompting the listener: can’t you see? As the album moves on, it introduces anew the lines of lean, interwoven guitar that characterised many of the debut’s songs, an element further sharpened now through persistent touring. Onward throughout the record, the bass is thick, the guitars are brittle, and the often-impassive vocals damp with reverb. The sound is old, but, also very new. There is a definite 60s feel to much of the record, but, rather than merely reproducing classic vibes, Women offer an interesting modern conduction, as the classic pop thread is uniquely blended with elements of noise and contemporary post-punk/hardcore. Make no mistake: this is a seriously excellent record, nearly peerless in the current landscape. One could pick certain sections of the album out as highlights (many of these tracks are quite perfect for what they are) but, as a whole, this is one of the most compelling Canadian LPs in recent memory. And, to briefly mention the limited-edition 7″ that accompanied the record’s official release: it provides two songs that sit outside of, but relate to, both Public Strain and Women, serving perhaps as a correspondence between the two. “Service Animal” combines calculated guitar lines and unusual rhythm into an equation that takes a few listens to decipher, while “Grey Skies” goes even further than album tracks like “Penal Colony” and “Venice Lockjaw” in being a ghostly early 60s slow-dance number.

But this is all being written with the knowledge that the band may be no more. This review had been sitting around unfinished for a while, and after hearing about the band’s implosion on-stage in Victoria last month, it seemed like a good time to not only post the review, but, to also add a few comments about the group and their reception in general. It was quite frustrating to see so much coverage given to their public meltdown while so little mention was made of the three years of brilliant work that came before. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, of course, that’s how media works, but, still, it would certainly be more encouraging if so many of the articles written about the band’s recent situation (especially in publications they’d never really been featured in) weren’t just insubstantial re-statings of facts already reported. In the end, the fact of the matter is that, as bassist/vocalist Matt Flegel explained in an interview: in less than a year, Women went from recording demos in a Calgary apartment to headlining shows in London. By the time of their messy Victoria show, they had toured Europe and the U.S. multiple times, and had cultivated a significant audience around the world, but, that kind of touring wears people out, and they were exhausted.

So, what’s left to say at this point? Women made a couple of really impressive records for one of the most acclaimed contemporary labels, played a whole lot of shows all around the world, and evidenced a perspective and trajectory for Canadian bands which goes completely beyond the Cancon ghetto. It’s a shame if they are indeed now broken up, but, it’s definitely a shame that they received just as much, if not more, attention for breaking up than for anything else.

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