Album Review: Wednesday – Rat Saw God

[Dead Oceans; 2023]

I was in Savannah, Georgia a few weeks ago visiting family. It’s a beautiful area, lots of willow trees that dangling through the sunlight as we drove down the narrow streets. Walking in the downtown area I noticed several Jehovah’s Witnesses accosting average patrons of the many nearby shops. No one shrugs, no one cares. This is small-town living in the Southern United States. 

One may have North in its name, but make no mistake, both Carolinas are considered the South. Maybe not deep south, but the South nonetheless. The same folks who are unfazed by pious parishioners peddling propaganda in the town square are likely the same individuals Wednesday reference on their confrontational new album Rat Saw God, their fourth overall outing. 

Hailing from Asheville, but with seeds planted in other small towns of North Carolina, Wednesday have risen the ranks of indie rock in recent years due to a perfectly complex marriage of unexpected genres: country fried southern rock, blues, shoegaze, noise rock, and oddly enough power pop.

Their previous endeavor, last year’s Mowing the Leaves Instead of Piling ‘em Up, was a powerful document displaying their takes on their influences, ranging from Medicine and the Drive-by Truckers, to The Smashing Pumpkins and the Wipers’ Greg Sage. It’s easily one of the best modern cover records as Wednesday managed to pay homage to their forefathers of rock even while making each cut their own, sometimes even outdoing the original. 

Those influences are widely incorporated on Rat Saw God, but they aren’t the dominant force driving the album. Instead, it’s the gritty and bare-bones honesty of lead singer Karly Hartzman, who extrapolates the mundane lifestyles of unglamorous people and rustic living into relatable occurrences. The degenerating nuclear family is under Harztman’s microscope, which is not overly critical; she’s scribbling these memories into history for the kids out there who dream of escaping the proverbial hells they live in. Yes, small town living isn’t for everyone. Some desire escape and never get it, others sacrifice all – family, friends, safety – just to arrive at some sense of progress in their lives, and the rest… well… they end up staying, for better or worse. 

Those who thrive in small towns aren’t excluded from Wednesday’s music though. Hartzman’s Americana reflections on “every day living” are displays of fondness; she remembers the good times and the bad. Talk of kids with scoliosis and lice decorate crunchy old fashioned rock and roll on that plaintive “Quarry”, a track feverishly ambivalent towards the band’s origins. The reflections on casual racism in the classroom and the random drug busts aren’t critical of Hartzman’s home, she’s sharing the memories that shaped her today. In a recent interview she revealed that she’d approached writing Twin Plagues, the band’s breakthrough second album, with an unapologetic transparency, something that scared her parents a bit, but frankly is what makes her such a captivating front person. 

There’s no stone unturned on Rat Saw God, from the acidic burn of piss-colored Fanta you can phantom taste and then dry gulp while listening to “Bath County”, to the sex shops that ironically line the highways next to Jesus billboards on “Turkey Vultures”. Wednesday aren’t criticizing; they just find it humorous, or at least noteworthy, that this cultural clash they have grown up in is so gray to them now.

In the moment, they hated it, they wanted out, but now that they’re four albums into a promising indie rock career Wednesday can look back at those trying times with ease. Without those fucked up neighbours doing Benadryl to get high, Wednesday might not exist, and they wouldn’t have released Rat Saw God, their best album. And that would be a huge disservice those kids who feel like they’re going nowhere, who might hear it and be inspired. 

This is what makes “Chosen to Deserve” such a meaningful ode to self-worth. Hartzman bares it all right from the start, “We always started by tellin all our best stories first / So now that it’s been awhile / I’ll get around to tellin you all my worst.” The doubt that runs deep in Hartzman’s sorrowful tune isn’t a front; there’s raw emotion on display, and she capitalizes on it with a nasty portrait of teen anxiety and self destruction: “I went to school about three days a week / watered down all the liquor / and then pissed outside in the street.” 

All of the praise doesn’t just fall on Hartzman, Wednesday is a five-headed dragon, and nothing underscores that depiction more than the tragedy-laden rhythms from Jake “MJ” Lenderman, hot off his 2022 solo breakthrough Boat Songs. He’s fully immersed in the Wednesday sound; this isn’t a stroll in the park for him. Listen as he tears layers upon layers of feeling from Hartzman’s screaming on “Bull Believer” with quietly sympathetic humming strings paired with scorching riffs. Margo Shultz’s impenetrable bass and Xandy Chelmis’ lap steel frantically underline the album with a sense of empathetic vacancy, all while Alan Miller’s drumming is subtly supportive of every inch. This is a band operating at their highest, most infectious potency, and the end result is riveting.

Speaking of “Bull Believer”, the colossal second track and first taste of Rat Saw God is an otherworldly monster. Frequently altering pitch and direction, “Bull Believer” is the epic centerpiece that isn’t at the center, it’s at the beginning, an intentional move to subvert expectations of the album off the heels of schizophrenic opener “Hot Rotten Grass Smell”. At eight-and-a-half minutes, “Bull Believer” is the most direct statement from Wednesday to date, and conveys the intent of the album directly. It’s several songs in one, stitched together by urgency and dread; “God, make me good, but not quite yet,” Hartzman yelps before unleashing a furious second half full of screeching wails that she beautifully impales us and herself on. 

Wednesday lace Rat Saw God with equal parts tragedy and comedy. The depictions inspire uneasy laughter – “I got shocked cause the room was on two different circuits,” but also sympathy, “Memory always twists the knife / nothing will ever be as vivid as the darkest time of my life.” As Hartzman puts it on “What’s So Funny”: “Suddenly it’s a tragic story / but that’s what so funny.”

Not all stories of the South or small-towns are this damning, there are plenty of artists who have lauded the simplicity of sitting on the lawn drinking clear-beer, instigating fights between disabled kids and jocks. They can keep those memories close to their chests; Wednesday would rather pull the scabs of the American underbelly off, let the blood flow and begin the healing process again. 

No matter what Wednesday are singing about, it all has vividness like no other. Whether it’s getting fucked in an SUV underneath a dogwood or rambling about the Jewish kid who got a preacher’s daughter pregnant, Wednesday’s reflections of surviving the South aren’t going to leave your thoughts any time soon. They are now part of history, and so are Wednesday.