Second Look: Women – Public Strain

It’s kind of difficult to make a case for a short-lived band’s second album to be a modern masterpiece. The Calgary post-punk outfit Women released their sophomore record Public Strain at the end of September in 2010, and were finished as a band barely a month later, on October 29th. Before that, they were hailed as one of the next big things for the genre, a torch they weren’t equipped to bear. When the group split asunder after an onstage implosion between brothers Pat and Matt Flegel, the likeliness of them going down in history as one of the “almost made it”s was inevitable.

A decade removed from Public Strain, the labels associated with it – Flemish Eye from Canada, and Jagjaguwar from the US – have banded together once again to deliver a reissue on vinyl of the final album, in addition to a Rarities EP containing five tracks that fans of the band have been pining a decade for. It’s unknown at this point if any of the band members have any involvement with the reissue.

After the break-up, everyone went their separate ways – in fact, they did even before that. In an interview from earlier this year, Pat Flegel stated that, after a calamitous show (which would turn out to be their final), the band were making their way home to Calgary, but Pat, suffering some level of psychosis, decided to quit the van in Vancouver and remain there. Drummer Mike Wallace opted to stay with them while the rest of the band (their bassist brother Matt and guitarist Christopher Reimer) continued home.

The new drag-project from Pat Flegel, which would later become Cindy Lee, was born essentially at the same time. Mike and Matt went on to form the successful post-punk band Viet Cong (later changed to Preoccupations). But, even with their new projects firmly grasped, Women had left a mark on indie music.

Overshadowed on release day by two stellar albums – Deerhunter’s second masterpiece Halcyon Digest and the last truly excellent No Age album Everything in BetweenPublic Strain was pushed to the margins. More traction was built after the band’s breakup, but with the end of the decade behind us very few publications included Public Strain on their Best of the 2010s lists, unfortunately (though Gorilla vs Bear and Tiny Mix Tapes did give it its due).

So to say that Public Strain is a cult classic is understatement. Like many small indie bands, Women never expected their stock to rise as much as it did. Their 2008 self-titled debut album was pigeon-holed by its stellar single “Black Rice”, and those who loved that track and expected more of the same on the follow-up were likely disappointed. But, just like the band who influenced them the most – The Velvet Underground – it’s likely every aspiring musician who bought Public Strain and adored it, went out and started their own band.

The Velvets are all over Public Strain; Lou Reed specifically hangs around in the corners of each track. “Ants just don’t belong / in this place you call your own,” Pat sings on “Narrow With the Hall” over a very subdued and linear guitar, never building to a crescendo or thrilling with some otherworldly solo of noise. Instead, it’s just a direct gem of a song that starts and stops as it should. This is what made Women so grand, their song structures were unconventional for the genre at the time – a genre that had largely sunk from public attention. Nowadays there are several post-punk bands borrowing ideas from their genre ancestors, but, with the exception of the obvious Velvets influence, Public Strain is wholly original in its scope and delivery – nothing else truly sounds like it.

The album hasn’t aged a day. It’s still just as bleak and uncharismatic as it was the first time I heard it. The monotone production creates this blizzard of icy strings and subzero vocals, which is mirrored in the cover art; this chilly disposition is one of the album’s strongest points. It has the uncanny ability to conjure sensitive adjectives when heard: grey, cold, empty, dread – it’s all intentional too. The production by frequent collaborator Chad VanGaalen was always venturing into this desolate uniqueness around the early 2010s (his 2011 stand out Diaper Island utilizes a lot of the same methods to a lesser but still dire extent).

The flourishes on Public Strain foreshadow the direction they each would take post-split. The ghostly and harmonious “Penal Colony” is a precursor to Pat’s Cindy Lee (who delivered one of the best albums of this year with What’s Tonight To Eternity), and “Bells” drones on and on like “Degraded” from Preoccupations

If unsettling album opener “Can’t You See” didn’t deter new listeners, then “Heat Distraction” is where they felt the album kick into a higher gear. That plucking from Chris and Pat working off each other is masterfully piercing; Matt’s bass capabilities further eschew the dynamic the band had by adding subtleties tacked on here and there. “Heat Distraction” also uses its hooky guitar lines as the actual chorus, instead of giving a repeatable line, it gives a repeatable feeling, which Pat’s lyrics match: “I found myself awake and walking / The two of you arrive / backs turned to the spitting / but they have not a dream.” Again, the instrumentation brings to mind that chilly disposition of the album cover, while Pat’s echoing vocals sending freezer burn down your spine, like someone just blasted you with a shotgun full of Icy-Hot.

The militaristic “China Steps” offers one of the most chaotic moments on the album. The lyrics are minimal, but the sounds these four bring to the table cut through slivers of pop like machetes on butter. You wince, you cringe, but you keep listening to it because you lose yourself in the noise. “Let’s intend to rise and stumble / anchored to our logic / Emotion too remaining,” Pat sings as they sway to and fro, before “China Steps” fades into oblivion and we’re met with the jangles of “Untogether” – another cut specifically anchored by its straining guitars and hallway processed vocals. Pat seems so removed from the song, but the instruments are forefront in your ear; they fade in and out with sometimes indecipherable lyrics. Their love of AM Gold splashes all over their music still, and “Untogether” claims the spot on Public Strain for being the most redolent of the late-2000s-early-2010s era.

The adventure that is Public Strain can feel like an exhausting trip, but if unsheathed there’s this undeniable pop hiding. “Drag Open” has an unforgettable riff that encompasses the sound of the album in its five minutes. It thunders out of speakers while the rugged lo-fi production making it unbearably beautiful.

If there is another major pop moment it’s “Locust Valley”. Not nearly as loud as what comes before and after, “Locust Valley” subverts expectations; Pat’s doo-wop tendencies present themselves as they soar to a near-falsetto breakdown. Harmonizing back and forth with Chris and their brother, “Twice now fixed on such a mess / Subtle green and send it back / precious ornament to crack / it’s an overwhelming lie.” Women were always partial to these late-arrival nuggets of pop gold, and while it’s futile to wonder where they could have taken this, it has crept into my mind a few times.

Most people who love Public Strain have to point out the epic finale “Eyesore”. It’s undeniably one of the band’s most well known and most beloved songs in their small discography. It gathers everything we love about the band and combines it in multiple stages over six and a half minutes: Pat’s withering voice demanding “Tell against your will /give out your number now”; Chris’ shimmering guitars; the thuds of Mike’s drumming. Matt Flegel’s bass duties are the secret weapon of Public Strain, he doesn’t overpower but he enhances every moment of the album by increasing that buzz in your ear. After the jagged performance from Chris and Pat, Matt’s bass warms just a little, but “Eyesore” doesn’t spiral out into some noisy transmission sound, it just fades away, almost as if the snow has stopped falling but there’s just a few more flakes fluttering down to the ground.

On February 21st, 2012, guitarist Chris Reimer sadly passed away in his sleep from heart complications. When Reimer passed, a lot of fans believed the band passed with him. To this day, his signature sound on Public Strain is one of the massive reasons why the album has the atmosphere that it has. His posthumous compilation Hello People from 2018 showcased his talent in snippets like “Mustard Gas”, but his gift for achieving that hollow guitar sound is precisely what gives Public Strain its eeriness. When “Can’t You See” kicks off the record, the conjunction of Pat and Chris is paramount to the sound and feel. It isn’t simply Sonic Youth or Velvets adoration, this is emotive playing, and something Chris Reimer was spectacular at.

2010 seems like such a long time ago. It was the year of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and This Is Happening. But today, to hear the new Rarities collection transports me back to that time in a heartbeat. The five-track set is short but worthwhile. The two tracks from the 7” “Service Animal”/”Grey Skies”, offered as a tour-only single back in 2010, are here at last. Until now these were only available through bootlegs. Both tracks are necessary canon for Women, “Service Animal” being the most 60s pop the band ever got, whereas “Grey Skies” is their version of a ballad. The soothing and nostalgic choir sounds cause the swaying and “oooh”s and “ahhh”s with joy. “Service Animal” flutters and flaunts its riffs like an arena rock song plunged into cracked mud, while “Grey Skies” turns the charm on.

The versatility of Women never ceases to amaze me; even to this day, hearing the organs rising at the start of “Everyone Is So In Love With You” stuns me. This unreleased (but bootlegged) cut was recorded during the same sessions that brought us Public Strain, but it sounds nothing like the album. One can only predict this is what the band was veering towards on future releases, as it has more of a natural structure, while still encapsulating the Women traits that brought us here in the first place.

Starting the Rarities EP with “Everyone Is So In Love With You” and ending with the alternate take on “Group Transport Hall” from their first record presents a wild dichotomous snapshot of a young band with multiple forks in the road. This alternate take on the Women centerpiece isn’t superior, but equal. It finds the band extending and drawing out their chords for a more immersive approach. On the self-titled it ended up as a minute long semi-transition, but here it’s tripled in length and given the whole lake to expand its icy tones over.

That just leaves “Bullfight”, purposely left at the end of this write-up because of what it signifies. In a time of confusion regarding the band’s status, “Bullfight” was shockingly released a few months later. For purists it’s considered the holy grail of Women tracks, one of their lovingly-assembled compositions. Dropping so early in 2011 it was doomed to be forgotten quickly, but “Bullfight” encompasses Women as a whole. It’s inherently poppy for them, and Pat’s voice isn’t as shrouded; it ebbs and flows organically, but still has all of the hallmarks the band established early on.

This Rarities EP signifies the end of an era for the Flegel brothers, Mike Wallace, and Chris Reimer, now that everything they recorded is available to be consumed via digital streaming platforms at last. Next year the reissue of Public Strain will ship on January 22nd (just two days after the tenth anniversary of “Bullfight”) on clear vinyl, with a bundle available to include the Rarities EP. Public Strain will live in on some form for another decade, and just like all things will probably be found in some bargain bin as a relic of forgotten time. It’s almost fitting considering The Velvet Underground didn’t last that long either, and while everyone went on to do great things, their fans still go back to the beginning when the corkscrewed guitars and lo-fi crackles were snowflakes evaporating on a rusty kettle in the dead of winter. Hopefully, those who find this record in another decade will go out and start their own band, and Women will continue to live on.