I've been listening to Women's self titled debut and their 2010 sophomore release Public Strain off and on for the past month, but for whatever reason, I haven't felt compelled to write reviews about either. I'm not saying I never will, it's just that I'd rather talk about both of them together, and the format of a review doesn't allow this. So instead I felt like doing an essay and free-associating about some of the things this music has made me think and feel.
On Women As A Canadian Band
It's unique that Women have such a generic name, since their music is anything but. More unique still is the fact that Women are a Canadian noise-pop band. It should be clear to anyone who's given it any thought that last decade was primarily the story of the rise of Canada as a major player in music, especially indie. Canada and some of its major cities were to the 00s what Seattle and Chicago were in the 90s, though Canada's cultural relevance burned less bright and has thus lasted longer. Yet the majority of these Canadian bands—Wolf Parade, Arcade Fire, The New Pornographers, Broken Social Scene, etc—are all in the same ballpark as each other, sonically speaking. Women, along with Frog Eyes, are one of those rare cases where a band who would never be seen on the cover of Spin still got some success and exposure. In Women's case, they have much more in common with American noise-pop from last decade. Which brings me to my next tangent.
On Women & No Age Part I
No Age were one of the other noise-pop bands who came up age in the 00s. Though No Age and Women share a sub-genre label, they really don't sound much alike when listened to back-to-back. To paraphrase Pulp Fiction, it's the little things, the little differences. For all the dreamy and/or psychedelic interludes on their records, No Age are much more of a rock and/or punk band. There's a reason they shared a stage with Bob Moulder of Husker Du fame, another band who ostensibly were punk (hardcore, anyway) but ventured outside those confines. Women, by contrast, are a bit harder to pin down. Their self titled debut is indebted to much 60s pop though it leans more toward the “flowers of evil in bloom” of the Velvet Underground side of the 60s pop world. But then there's tracks like 'Black Rice' and the acoustic 'Group Transport Hall' which don't even qualify as noise-pop. On the other hand, 'Lawncare' descends into what could only be termed noise, period, and album closer 'Flashlights' sounds more like a furious improvisation from a live bootleg than a song proper. Yes, No Age and Women are noise-pop, but beyond that, they resist easy summarization.
On Women & No Age Part II/Public Strain
Whereas No Age's second album, Everything In Between, went for an expansion of the sound of their debut (note: Weirdo Rippers doesn't count as their debut, since it was made up of previously released EP tracks), simultaneously more noisy, poppy, weird, melodic, dreamy, and psychedelic depending on the song, Women took a different tact with Public Strain. If their first record could be lazily dubbed their 60s album, their sophomore release is more like their late 70s/early 80s album. Don't be thrown off by the hypnotic, drum-less opener 'Can't You See', a song I'm borderline obsessed with. No, Public Strain is more of a post-punk kind of vibe.
While their first album often tended toward a sunny and partially cloudy atmosphere, Public Strain belongs entirely to the night. The bass is more upfront in this songs, and the production is much cleaner and detailed than the lo-to-mid-fi of Women. I would roughly summarize this sound as Joy Division meets early Sonic Youth but that's really stretching it. The hazy slow-mo of 'Penal Colony' doesn't sound like either band, and 'Bells' is like a more palatable sequel to 'Woodbine' from the first album. Still, the krautrock groove of 'China Steps' sounds like Bad Moon Rising-era Sonic Youth covering Can's 'Mushroomhead', and everywhere the singer's emotionless, flat vocals are taken straight from Ian Curtis's playbook though less, let's say, uhm...theatrical.
I often find myself going through phases when writing about music in which I inadvertently repeat the same handful of phrases over and over again. True, it's mostly drawn from the usual critical shorthand, like “it grows on you”, or “a headphones album”, or “sophomore slump.” That kind of thing. But “timeless” as a term and “timelessness” as a concept are things I try to use sparingly and only when I can be very explicit about what I mean. I would consider both Women and Public Strain to be timeless in the sense that, while they belong to a codified sub-genre of music and evoke certain eras of music, they don't really belong to a specific scene or time period. Women could easily have come out on a small label in 1969 from a band influenced by the first two Velvet Underground albums and the summertime, feelgood pop hits of the day. Public Strain could have come out in 1985 from a band influenced by Joy Division and Sonic Youth. These are crude approximations, but I hope they make sense.
Outro/The Future Of Women
It's too bad that Women are on an indefinite hiatus. They're a band who have already realized some potential but still have so much more I think they could achieve. Much like how early releases from many groups are excellent but eventually overshadowed by later albums, I feel like Women have it in them to release their version of a Daydream Nation. The closing song of Public Strain, 'Eyesore', points to them following the same path Sonic Youth took in the mid-to-late 80s, allowing their songs to stretch a bit, becoming more jammy and improvisational but not in a hippie jam band sort of way. This is one of those tracks that seems like it could just go on and on, fading out before the playtime reaches double digits. Anyway, given another record or two (and perhaps a line-up shuffle, change of label, or a sympathetic producer), I think Women could reach the top tier of indie bands, noise-pop, Canadian, or otherwise.