Wares, the musical project of Edmonton’s Cassia Hardy, has been around since 2013. Hardy has put out several EPs and a full album before this, but Survival is Wares’ first record for a label, picked up by Mint Records. This is an album full of passion that freely mixes indie rock, synthpop, and traces of punk. It’s also a highly personal album, with Hardy’s lyrics taking on past traumatic experiences as well as her gradual recovery. It’s a record that should be right up my alley.
So why does Survival leave me cold? I think it’s mostly due to the songwriting, with a side of stylistic complaints. The short first track, “Hands, Skin”, opens the album with tension and intensity, as Hardy’s voice dominates the song, speaking and eventually shouting when the rest of the band comes in to rock out with punk intensity for the final 30 seconds. That pushes right into “Tall Girl”, which begins with similar energy, but Hardy lets it completely dissipate after about 10 seconds. It shifts into quiet, laid-back verses with soft singing and easygoing bass. The volume eventually increases for the chorus, “I regret / Not getting to know you better”, but by that point, the ferocity of the album’s opening has been largely squandered.
Hardy’s tonal shifts are both fascinating and frustrating throughout Survival. The feedback-laden fadeout of “Tall Girl” dissolves into the slow, fuzzy synth opening of “Living Proof”, a much better transition. Without the expectation of intensity, the relaxed vibe of this song makes it much more effective, sounding like a synthpop ballad with raw-sounding drums and guitars dirtying up the sound. The synths then shift to a simple, clean guitar riff for “Tether”, which is Hardy doing relaxed indie rock. Her guitars are the best thing about the song, with a cool lead riff and some jagged playing in between the verses. But the song lacks a strong vocal hook, which keeps it from making a real musical impact.
Much better is “Surrender Into Waiting Arms”, which has the kind of melodic but noisy and sloppy guitar playing and rough but enthusiastic vocals that drove bands like Cloud Nothings and Dananananaykroyd to minor fame in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Interestingly, after a fast, upbeat beginning, the song goes into a long, slow section that takes up most of the back half of the track. The acoustic “Jenny Says” follows this up with quiet singing and synth strings. When Hardy puts her voice front and center and ups the energy level during this song, it’s bracing and effective.
After “Jenny Says”, though, the remaining tracks on Survival struggle to make an impact. “Complete Control” swaps out the acoustic for electric guitars and crashing cymbals, but keeps the languid pace of the former song without retaining its moments of intensity. This is the case even when the song gets noisy in its back half. The melodic hook just isn’t there, although the unexpected synth solo, in the end, gets close. “Violence” has a killer line, “The boys all watch each other changing / And pretend they’re not allured”, but the rest of the song is relatively limp.
The charging “Surface World” at least gives a respite from the mid-tempo and slower songs that dominate the middle of the album. Still, the thinness of Hardy’s voice, which helps the feeling of intensity elsewhere, turns out to be a hindrance in an all-out power-pop song. “Survival” closes the album on a similar uptempo note, with Hardy shout-singing her way through the song as her band gamely matches her intensity. But again, there’s no real hook here. When the keyboards and guitar take over in the last 30 seconds to finish out the song, there’s suddenly a recognizable melody and harmony to anchor the song.
I’ve no doubt Hardy is earnest about her experiences in her lyrics, but her music often comes off as awkward combinations of her chosen styles rather than a cool synthesis. Survival is a listenable album, but the songcraft leaves something to be desired. It seems like Hardy needs to find a way to play to her strengths more consistently, and it will make her songs more effective.