Is Women’s Art Rock Album ‘Public Strain’ a Lost Classic?

On ‘Public Strain’ (2010), art rock band Women fused sonic experimentation and rhythmic complexity with an intuitive ear for melody.

Public Strain
Flemish Eye / Jagjaguwar
28 September 2010

On the surface, “Everyone Is So In Love With You”, the opening track on art rock band Women’s new Rarities EP seems to be a fairly straightforward song of love and loss. ‘Maybe it’s a long time / To be without you’, sings Patrick Flegel over an elegant backdrop of acoustic guitar and cello.

But there’s more going on here. Recorded in 2007 but not released until late last year, this is simultaneously one of the first and last Women songs. Formed in Calgary, western Canada, Women — made up of brothers Patrick and Matt Flegel, alongside their childhood friends Chris Reimer and Mike Wallace — fused sonic experimentation and rhythmic complexity with an intuitive ear for melody. After releasing two albums to moderate acclaim — 2008’s Women, followed by Public Strain in 2010 — they abruptly split in a fit of exhaustion and acrimony. Since then, fans have pored over the limited material left behind, a catalogue that is all the more potent for its tantalising finitude.

Ten years on, “Everyone Is So In Love With You” feels at once like an act of memorialisation and an eerie prophecy. The lyrical refrain that holds the song together, “Maybe it’s a long time…”, now seems to take on a new meaning, ventriloquising the fans for whom this band’s output — and particularly their masterpiece Public Strain — felt so vital at the beginning of the last decade.

Public Strain emerged at a strange time for indie rock. Depending on your perspective, the independent scene was either at the peak of its powers or deep in a near-terminal malaise. On the one hand, guitar bands signed to independent labels had once again punctured the mainstream. Groups like Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend topped the charts, while Grizzly Bear and Bon Iver soundtracked Hollywood films. But, of course, this posed a problem for a genre that has often been premised on the pursuit of marginality.

Since its inception, indie has frequently defined itself as the authentic alternative to plastic, pre-packaged mainstream pop. Whether at the level of production and distribution (the independent label movement), aesthetics (wilful amateurism), or a more diffuse sensibility (anti-commercialism, countercultural dissidence), indie has always relied on its other — the mainstream — to give it a sense of purpose.

As this distinction became increasingly blurred in the new millennium, indie rock seemed to have a drawn-out identity crisis, drained of the antagonistic energy that fuelled its creative development from the late-’70s onwards. As many noted at the time, the crop of new bands that emerged in the wake of the Strokes were happy to resurrect the treble-heavy sound of post-punk while overlooking its often explicit emphasis on formal innovation.

While first-wave post-punk drew its potency from a “modernistic imperative to Make It New“, as critic Joe Kennedy put it, post-’00 indie often seemed content with pastiche and hollow revivalism. By the end of the decade, a critical consensus began to emerge: indie congealed into a “dull establishment” of “well-made music” on the one hand, and a vast “landfill” of “drearily adequate” tunes, on the other.

In this context, Public Strain felt incongruous. If indie had settled into a predictable, lifeless rhythm, Women sounded like a band struggling for something vital. True to its title, the record is driven by a sense of exertion, pressure, and antagonism; its governing principle is one of paradox. Dissonant sonics collide with wide-eyed pop melodies; unruly expressionism clashes with meticulous songcraft; distortion and distancing effects encounter occasional flashes of clarity.

Nonetheless, the album remains a remarkably cohesive statement. As critics Chet Betz and Lindsay Zoladz put it at the time, there is a sense that the record “doesn’t so much start and end as it does exist, in an ominous, humming loop, and will continue to do so, somewhere out there, whether you download it or not.”

Expansive opening track “Can’t You See” sets the tone perfectly in this regard. Despite its conventional verse-chorus structure, the song feels less a progression than an ascension: it spreads out like an aural “sunrise“, to borrow a wonderful observation from Canadian producer Cory Fischer. Washes of sound — strings, feedback, glimmering overtones — gradually fill the sonic frame as Flegel croons over an insistent bassline. There’s a sense of unfurling, of emerging possibility as resonant strings cut through the haze and we shift from A major to the harmonically brighter key of E major.

But Women can hardly be said to be optimists. Here and throughout the record, any moments of harmony or affirmation are tempered by feelings of unease, paranoia, and melancholy. Lyrically, we are in a fever dream: half-literate fragments sit alongside images of hot-and-cold flashes, wrong turns, and uncanny encounters. “Not so sure that I’ve seen this place before”, Flegel sings, evoking a sense of déjà vu that seems to speak to the listener’s experience.

Throughout Public Strain, Women draw on established formal codes only to pull them apart, to make the familiar strange. In this sense, the band can be situated within a long tradition of postwar music that has sought to blur the boundaries between the popular and the experimental. Women weren’t exactly striving for the radically new; rather, they captured the sound of the conflict between a populist fascination with mass culture and a more iconoclastic impulse drawn from the avant-garde. Patrick Flegel discussed this tension in a recent interview: “I love hits… I just love the tradition of writing songs like that. I love how concise it is… But also I want to destroy music… and do something unique.”

Elsewhere, the band takes a more straightforward approach to the pop template, albeit one that is always qualified by distancing techniques. “Narrow With the Hall” is the closest we get to pop classicism: a sprightly, two-and-a-half-minute track that sets close harmonies and a propulsive,groove-oriented bassline against torrential distortion and feedback.