Simple retro elements that hearken back to Syd Barrett collide with experimental noise. On Public Strain, each side carries the same artistic weight for Women. It's full of songs that speak with a direct simplicity while reveling in chaotic noise along the edges. Except, like an M.C. Escher drawing, the foreground and background switch and then the edges become the main focus.
Many critics have compared Women to the Velvet Underground and the Zombies. Sure, their embrace of noise elements seems reminiscent of John Cale and Lou Reed, but the early days of Barrett's Pink Floyd are also there. Flickers of David Bowie's Space Oddity come to mind as well. The combination, though, is most like a soft-focused Robyn Hitchcock.
The songs are emotionally evocative and setting the right mood is the key. Throughout the course of Public Strain, the bass and drums stay anchored in a traditional sound while the guitars are more fickle. One moment, they're providing a simple strum accompaniment; next, they're droning detuned squeals and whines. Behind all of the music, the distant strains of heavily echoed vocals settle like cobwebs.
The opening track, Can't You See, starts of with modulated noise and feedback. The noise is the foreground, while the bass line and reverbed vocals set the tonality in the background. Gradually, the music rises to compete with the noise before sinking back down.
The moods shift from track to track, like the noise. Women are effective at pulling together into musical sense when it suits them, whether it's progressive or retro psychedelia. Still, the chaos is never far, creeping in like tunnel vision.
One of the defining moments is the noise punk of Drag Open, which recalls Sonic Youth. The bass and drums are driving and the experimental guitar work give the song a flaking edge of desperation. The anxiety builds, then dissipates into a more thoughtful end section. The disconnect creates its own worrying tension.
The low fi, melting pot of order and chaos make Public Strain a thoroughly engaging album. It demands a bit of attention, but Women trade fair value for your time. Watch the once clear liquid cloud as you pour the absinthe over the sugar cube...