Shuffling out of Mercury Lounge last night, I overhear one concertgoer exasperatedly ask another, “Why would a band who can write a hook and play their guitars well feel the need to go on an odyssey of painful noise?” There was a complaint about Women’s heavy use of effect pedals and some talk about wanting to punch the singer in the face. So that’s one way to look at how the Canadian exports fared in their first of two New York shows this week.
I’m fairly sure it was the minority opinion though, even though it’s true: In a live setting, Women don’t play their songs exactly as they sound on record, and it can be quite shocking, the degree to which they layer feedback, reverb and general pandemonium to their already subversive 60s pop. Even with their new release, Public Strain, taking a leap in the direction of noise-rock (producer Chad VanGaalen reportedly threw out tracks for sounding too pretty), you can’t be prepared.
In an interview I came across after the band wrapped up touring for their first album, singer/guitarist Patrick Flegel talked about being influenced by their touring partners, post-rock overlords Mogwai — for all intents and purposes, the loudest band on earth — and last night it showed. Songs that at first resemble The Zombies became attuned to hellish rainstorms. For as simple, almost childlike, as their melodies are, there is an awful lot of stuff happening up there onstage, taking a Pink Floydish approach to extended outros and jams. It’s all very heady and psychedelic (also a little creepy); there’s an unsettling feeling of impending something. There's also literally no stage banter other than "thank you." Paired with Flegel’s dead gaze (he looks a little like the endearing depressed kid in that new movie with Zach Galifianakis, which somehow isn't all that surprising), and you’ve got a weirdly compelling show.
The disgruntled audience member got some parts right though. They can indeed write a hook. Underneath the rumbles and drones, the rhythm section plods away while two-sometimes three-part harmonies work to keep in tact. They can certainly play their guitars too. There were a few especially neat tricks, like when one extended guitar jam suddenly broke into fast-paced flutters without skipping a beat, or when the steady backbeat and tweaky guitars on "China Steps" simmered, then gradually built again like a f'ed-up instrumntal version of "Shout." Women played 200-some shows in support of their debut record. It’s safe to say their shows have evolved, in arresting ways.