10 Years after its release, Public Strain rests in its grave, ready to be visited every so often, to have its legacy respected and admired. Women’s disbandment was quite the disappointment to fans with only two records released to their name but was ultimately inevitable. After the death of guitarist Christopher Reimer, bassist Matt Flegal and drummer Mike Wallace went on to form Viet Cong (now, Preoccupations), a band that carried a more aggressive form of post-punk, but then eventually veered into more synthy new wave. Frontperson Pat Flegal went on to become the artist known as Cindy Lee, Pat’s metamorphosis of his new identity, creating melancholic pop music under a veneer of murk. Today, Public Strain plays like an elegy to the band’s past and to one of its creators, but more importantly, it stands out as one of punk’s masterpieces from the last decade.
On their debut Women, the foundation was laid out with a thin skeleton of lo-fi indie rock full of hooks laid bare. Tracks like “Shaking Hand” presented glorious guitar acrobatics designed to misdirect while still having fun with garage pop in “Black Rice” or “Cameras.” On Public Strain, the band seems to explore more inward, as its darker, chillier air carries drifts of snow from their hometown of Calgary, Alberta. Although many might still consider the record lo-fi, its production has somehow evolved into something more deceptively developed, yet all the more dissonant. Chords are more jagged and jarring than ever as if attempting to push listeners as far back as possible. On “Drag Open,” guitars awkwardly squeal, slowly morphing into a riff only a little slightly more palatable on its chorus, the track’s bassline only acting as a guide. Eventually, everything crumbles and arrives at what Women do best — extended art rock jams that sink into their unconscious depths.
As a precursor to the album’s release in 2010, post-punk in the 2000s lacked the unpredictability that Public Strain offered. Most of the genre’s sound at that time might have been under the influence of The Strokes or Interpol’s New York garage rock, a totally different style of punk compared to the more experimental blend of fringe genres found in the 2010s.
Maybe it’s the odd time signatures, the excessive hiss, or random bouts of noise, but what makes Public Strain stands out from the genre a decade later is the intimacy felt throughout its eleven tracks. Sure, post-punk’s purpose might be to eliminate any sense of comfort — to destroy one’s perception of what punk and other forms of conventional music should sound like — but in the world of Public Strain, its cavernous sound invites you to be apart of its delusions despite its claustrophobia. On the krautrock track “China Steps,” dual guitars between Reimer and Pat exchange cacophonous riffs as Matt’s bass keeps a steady rhythm to transport us into the glowing hum of the track’s conclusion — drone to calm the senses. “Narrow with the Hall” reminds me of the Velvet Underground’s straightforward yet beguiling arrangements. It starts off with simple chords played on each quarter note, a steady Motown bassline, and a Moe Tucker-esque thump of the snare. A storm suddenly shrouds the track in a cascade of noise, culminating into something so beautifully crafted. It’s astonishing to witness everything fall back into place as Pat coos his way back into the calm. These are just a few examples of how refined they are in achieving the balance between noise and melody.
A common comparison and likely significant influence in their sound come from This Heat’s Deceit, a post-punk collage of eccentric sounds where random blasts of flute, horn, and guitar freak-outs filter in and out of the album. Just as Public Strain has in the 2010s, Deceit stood out within the confines of post-punk in the ’80s, even knowing how weird post-punk could get. According to Pat, the album took about 10 months to record where they would track for only 2 days at a time, then not talk to each other for a week. This might explain the shifts in various sounds and moods, yet the album feels like a singular record as any, thanks in part to Chad VanGaalen’s production and Women’s experience and cohesion as a band.
A lot of the unusual chords and arrangements might come from a lot of exposure to weird jazz music from the Flegel brothers’ father and the hardcore and metal they listened to in their teens. At the time of recording — and even at present as Cindy Lee — more traditional 60’s pop and R&B might have influenced Pat’s affinity for tenderness such as from tracks like “Venice Lockjaw” and “Penal Colony.” Recorded with minimal drums and the Flegel brothers’ intimate voices, these track feels like respites in between the din of their instruments — lullabies that rock you to sleep, with guitars gently twinkling behind Pat’s feeble vocals. “Eyesore” ultimately stands out as the best track and an excellent way to end the record. It’s the exchange of glittery arpeggios between Reimer and Pat, the Motown-esque melody, the clouded clarity of the production, and the child-like wonder in its lyrics: “We were sneaking in to the aquarium / Gold leaf in your feet, you left a trail.” It’s the experimentation into different sounds and genres that Women make with your classic four-person guitar band lineup that make their music so engaging and gripping.
Anxiety and the decay of one’s mental health seem to pervade the record as everything tenses up but then releases as if to relieve the anxiety. The album references Ray Johnson, a collagist and performance artist that committed suicide despite a life full of art and wonder. Today, Reimer’s death seems to permeate the record. “Faces start to blend / Meets a sudden end / And you’re gone completely / I know that it’s hard to go” sings the Flegel brothers on “Penal Colony,” the aforementioned track evoking a lot of Pat’s Cindy Lee-sound today. It feels heavy just to hear those words come out after Reimer’s passing. The transition into the drone of “Bells” suddenly feels like a funeral song, a moment of silence for the talented Reimer. At a time where the anxiety of death looms over all of us (RIP Kobe Bryant), we mustn’t only remember our past but cherish the moments we have with our loved ones and be present with them as much as we can. Public Strain as a masterpiece provides us those moments of joy and sorrow — its highs and lows, moments to appreciate, reflect upon, and understand.