Review Summary: Public Strain is a burial in a heavy sonic snowdrift, a chamber of blanket dissonance, an off-kilter, ugly, fascinating, visceral mess of a record.
Women’s work explores a demilitarized zone across which terrible ugliness and equally terrible beauty take pot shots at each other. Public Strain bludgeons with volleys of distortion, daring you to turn and flee, before rewarding your courage or stupor with tiny crumbs of reward. Many of its songs are less songs and more compositions of suites: Heat Distraction undergoes at least two rhythm changes before the vocal chimes in. Then abruptly it shifts gear again and again, until inescapable ugliness has somehow morphed into a heavy-footed, compelling monarch of a piece. The same is true of Narrow with the Hall, where a violent blast of distorted guitar opens out into a warm, expansive sound shot through with an occasional unlovely squeal.
The album’s narrative is lost amongst its indistinctiveness, as lyrics fall away like shouts through the blizzards its cover depicts. As a result it’s an isolating, alienating listen: the wordless Bells is the musical equivalent of submerging oneself underwater, blocked off from the world by walls of dense liquid sound. Together with the sinister China Steps it forms an intimidatingly brutal core to the album- on the latter track in particular any conventional pretence of beauty is abandoned altogether. Chinks of light begin to appear again on Untogether, which follows China Steps as its slightly more open-faced younger brother.
Public Strain performs the public service common to all difficult albums: it causes us to reevaluate why we listen to music. Drag Open is certainly not enjoyable in any traditional sense what with its mad time changes and chaotic squalls of grey noise. What it is is a challenge, both to the listener and to a world fed on the thrice digested corn of easy listening bilge. Of course it’s not all as heavy as that: when they wish, as on standout Locust Valley, Women can write a melody that sticks in the brain, albeit a brain lodged in the purgatory of off-key, off-time guitars. Venice Lockjaw finds them in relaxed mood: in complete contrast, however, to the first half of the album it begins warmly before striking those warning, dissonant notes as it moves towards its conclusion. It’s closer Eyesore though that summarises the album perfectly, starting as a wintry, unintelligible chore and ending as a minor celebration to…..what exactly? As with all Women’s music, it’s either thrillingly ambiguous or unambiguously dreary depending on your levels of patience, but it’s also a symbolic victory for beauty in its album-long struggle with the beast.