Savages: Silence Yourself

Silence Yourself
Matador/Pop Noire

There’s some cognitive dissonance in Savages naming their much anticipated debut Silence Yourself, because there’s absolutely nothing quiet or demure about the buzzed-about UK act and its unblinking neo-post-punk. Indeed, Savages got on the radar by backing up its own brand of next-wave don’t-call-it-feminist rock with an attitude that’s just as loud and brash as their music. Even if they don’t fully identify with the feminist tag often attributed to them and apparently bristle at gender-specific comparisons, it’s still fitting to contextualize Savages, sonically and thematically, according to a tradition of bands that didn’t mind making the personal political and vice versa, their approach harkening back to the socially-minded abrasion of the Slits and the Raincoats, the bombast of riot grrrl acts, and the boundary defying proficiency of Sleater-Kinney. In short, Savages are all about not silencing yourself — as Savages themselves proclaim, “This album is meant to be played loud and in the foreground.”

Once you consider that quote and understand the phrase Silence Yourself as a prompt to listeners to pay close attention to what Savages have to say and how they express themselves, then the title makes a lot more sense as a command, as an order. It’s probably no coincidence, then, that Silence Yourself leads off with the punkish stare-down “Shut Up”, on which frontwoman Jehnny Beth mockingly dares, “Did you tell me to shut up?,” with a cocked brow intonation that quiets the haters by implying she won’t be silencing herself. But the in-your-face declarations Savages make on Silence Yourself are never just expressions of youthful hubris: Silence Yourself calls out for you to take Savages and their work seriously because they do, demanding active engagement from you and rewarding you for it. So maybe Savages’ aesthetic and ideology aren’t quite so radical or iconoclastic as advertised, but there is an uncommon intensity to Silence Yourself that makes it feel vital and novel nonetheless — if anything, it speaks volumes about Savages’ songwriting chops and high level of execution that they’re even mentioned in the same breath as the groundbreaking bands they’re being compared to already.

Case in point: The previously released tracks re-recorded for Silence Yourself don’t just remind you of why Savages received so much notice and praise in the first place, but live on in the present tense by sounding just as imposing and intense as they did when they made their striking first impressions. In particular, Savages are at their most anthemic and brutal on “I Am Here”, with its interplay of Gemma Thompson’s wiry, sharp guitars and Faye Milton’s primal, cavernous drumming bringing to mind a vision of Franz Ferdinand covering a number from the harrowing first Throwing Muses album. And the latter reference definitely applies to the way Jehnny Beth’s hair-raising vocals bring to mind Kristin Hersh’s ability to channel the darkest depths of her soul, especially as Beth howls the title line with increasing pace and building force. “Husbands”, on which Beth reverses the gender roles of lust-’em-and-leave-’em one-night-stands when she speak-sings, “Whoa, I woke up and saw the face of a guy / I don’t know who he was,” may be even more seething and withering, yet never so much so that it doesn’t connect, thanks to Savages’ intuitive knack for ragged melody. But if you think Savages are only about dark dissonance and sharp edges, “City’s Full” proves they know how to carry a tune, approximating the Go-Go’s if they were downcast London post-punks with some gender studies coursework, as Beth piercingly observes “so many skinny, pretty girls” with a critical eye.

The best of Silence Yourself‘s original offerings maintain the same unflinching profile of those earlier efforts, while showcasing a newfound complexity that suggests Savages haven’t just been sitting on their laurels. “Shut Up” sets the right tone for an album that’s confrontational enough to grab your attention, but catchy enough to hold on to it, as Ayse Hassan’s big, rattling bass line duels with Thompson’s slicing guitars to earworm their way into your consciousness by means of rhythm and melody. More impressive is the way Savages bulk up their approach on compositions like the brooding “Strife”, which manages to feel sleek and sinewy at the same time, and the first single “She Will”, which pushes forward with the driving dynamics of neo-new-wave predecessors like Interpol and Franz Ferdinand. Late-era Sleater-Kinney is also a touchstone here, since Thompson might as well be playing Carrie Brownstein to Beth’s Corin Tucker, as she draws out the dramatic verses with longer, more fluid guitar lines, then spikes the yelped chorus with barbed riffs. With its heightened pitch, “She Will” turns out to be the most aggressively affirmative statement on an album that usually speaks out with double-negative double-meanings on silencing yourself and shutting up, especially when Beth matter-of-factly sneers, “She will kiss like a man / She will fuck other men / She will come back again.”

Such concentration and focused performance can be hard to sustain through an entire album, though, and Silence Yourself naturally has its lapses and lulls. Not every track can be as honed and on-point as the singles-quality work that makes up most of Silence Yourself, as serviceable Fall-esque punch-ups “No Face” and “Hit Me” show, coming off like rough drafts of Savages’ best work. And as you might suspect, subtlety isn’t Savages’ strong suit at this point: In particular, Silence Yourself‘s most downbeat piece, “Waiting for a Sign”, saps the album’s momentum smack dab in the middle of the tracklist, less a carefully sequenced change-of-pace than a languid breather where Beth’s modulated wails and the guitar squall feel flat in comparison. And it certainly doesn’t help that “Waiting for a Sign” is followed up by what’s more or less two minutes of dead air on “Dead Nature”, the only throwaway passage on what’s an otherwise lean and mean affair.

Still, Savages accomplish no mean feat by living up to the hype, even if they don’t quite match the lofty ambitions they have set for themselves, at least not yet. But it’s not a bad place to be for a hungry band that wants and needs to keep pushing itself, that grasps that there’s more potential to be realized by moving further out of its comfort zone. That’s the note Silence Yourself ends on with the haunting closer “Marshall Dear”, on which Savages convey a slinky, Pulp-ish allure, then breaks it down to its skeletal essentials. With one foot in the here-and-now and the next already stepping into the future on Silence Yourself, Savages are not only making the statement that they are here, but that they are here to stay.

RATING 8 / 10