Women’s 2008 self-titled debut is one of my favorite records. As with many loves, however, it’s difficult to tell you why, exactly. When I first laid ears on it, I thought it was the prettiest ugly thing, interlocking detuned guitar riffs and swaths of wide-lens noise and all. The music was as warm through all its tearing and wrinkling as I imaged the band’s Canadian home was chilly. It felt three-dimensional, like fingers on a relief map — then like the map had rolled up and was trying to asphyxiate me. I always ended the album’s journey slack-jawed and a little out of breath.
The past two years waiting for a follow-up have been long ones. I listened to the music from drummer Michael Wallace’s stint as a non-drummer in Friendo, but I wanted Public Strain. I thought it boded well that Chad VanGaalen would once again be recording (both albums are co-released via his label Flemish Eye), and I was right. After such anticipation, though, forming an opinion seems like something that has to fade-in slowly from the ether. Disappointment and approval both offer themselves up as conclusions to jump to, but neither turns out to be correct. Or maybe both are correct, given the apples and oranges of comparing debut to sophomore releases.
Either way, Public Strain is certainly a different album than Women was. Like many sophomore records, it doesn’t harbor the angst of the debut. It’s a little less frenzied: no song makes guts clench with suspense like “Shaking Hand” did, and none possess the melancholy sunrise of the “Black Rice” single that spurred wider notice of Women in the first place. Public Strain feels stripped-down, simpler, and lolloping. It’s not so eerie.
But its modesty doesn’t imply simplicity. Women’s men have allowed themselves other techniques to communicate than the ones that filled Women. Closer “Eyesore,” for instance, features high, whining vocals, like Nurses or even Panda Bear, and lots of tambourine before it blooms into a pretty, triumphant outro. A string section is clearly audible in leadoff “Can’t You See.” Another modest departure, “Venice Lockjaw” is a sweet ballad, full of ever-present, deliberately clunky guitar work. It’s front-of-the-mix in a Monet kind of way: you’re so close you can see the brush strokes. Heard from the point of view of someone who likes clean music, these dissonances initially seem like flaws, but once you back up and gain perspective, you see that the blemishes are really the source of all its beauty.
Conversely, “Heat Distraction” is about the closest thing to Women’s Women style on Public Strain. Whining, puzzle-piece guitar melodies and buried vocals mix with kinetic chord progressions and more melodious interludes. Meanwhile, ambient track “Bells” returns to form with droning consonances and audible intonation beats, as rebellious about what we normally call tuneful as always. Of course, Women’s strength lies in their slanted approach to extreme melodicism. Each song still contains several different themes pieced together like a patchwork quilt. Some numbers are made up of larger bits than others — some end up twin-sized, some king — but each becomes a soft, comforting, cohesive whole.
So no, Public Strain isn’t the manic, dirty opus Women was. But it’s still Women. And I’m still in love with it.