Band To Watch: Wednesday
The burned-down Dairy Queen. A living room acid trip that ends with a broken foot. Screen doors and quarter-mile trips to get the mail. These are the sorts of images that populate Wednesday’s new album Twin Plagues. Karly Hartzman, the band’s leader, writes about where she grew up with humor and heaviness, exploring the divide between suburban and rural and the ways the anonymity of smaller-town life can lead to feeling like you’re barely even there.
Hartzman was born in Greensboro, North Carolina. As she sings on Twin Plagues‘ lead single “Handsome Man,” she was once “a neighborhood kid with a fucked-up buzzcut.” “I was doing whatever kids were doing at the time — riding my bike and listening to my iPod,” she says. Her family all had creative outlets but they weren’t particularly musical. When her dad brought home a ukulele while she was in middle school, Hartzman taught herself how to play it. She kept on buying different instruments, but didn’t want to take lessons. She knew she wanted to make music but didn’t know exactly how she would go about doing that.
After moving to Asheville for college, she started to figure it out. For a time, Hartzman sang in the band Diva Sweetly, whose 2019 debut was filled with high-octane pop-punk hooks, the best of them delivered by Hartzman’s commanding voice. But she quickly realized that pop-punk was not what she wanted to do. When she was younger, she had gotten into shoegaze and My Bloody Valentine. She really wanted to make music that sounded like that, but was afraid she couldn’t pull it off. Her first album as Wednesday, yep definitely, was recorded at a studio on campus and is a hodgepodge of different styles — some Sundays-inspired dream-pop, some Mitski-biting indie rock. The best song on it, “Dollywood,” is also the one that sounds most like an outlier — a burnt-out husk of a track with a twinkling, slow-dance sway.
As she started to play live, she honed in on a sound: jagged and reflective, with a country bent that she attributes to the RV park her family would visit when she was a kid and the communal country song lip-syncs that would take place there. She recruited a band that now includes lead guitarist Jake Lenderman, bassist Margo Schultz, drummer Alan Miller, and lap steel player Xandy Chelmis — she calls them all “geniuses” who are integral to building out Wednesday’s songs. “I realized I liked how playing electric guitar felt and I wanted it to get louder and louder and louder so I kept adding people to the band,” she says. “Very quickly because of all the guitars we were adding, it started becoming something else I liked better.”
Last year’s I Was Trying To Describe You To Someone was Wednesday’s full-band debut. It has an understated confidence, best exemplified by its pair of lead singles, “Fate Is…” and “Billboard,” which demonstrate Wednesday’s ability to gently unravel and coil back up again. Hartzman considers herself a writer first, or at least that’s what comes most naturally, and her songs take on the untraditional structures of poetry: three verses, no chorus, or all chorus, no verses. The rest of the band wrangle her words into dynamic songs that sound suffocating and muddy. It’s a far cry from pop-punk; these songs are tangled and raw. Hartzman shines at the center of them, with a voice that has a sweetness which cuts through Wednesday’s darkest moments.
Hartzman set out to write an album that would let her put her childhood behind her. But leaving the past in the past is, of course, easier said than done. The band’s new album confronts specific traumas that have stuck with Hartzman. “Birthday Song” recounts an acid trip gone wrong, which happened on her birthday and ended up with someone jumping out of a window and breaking their foot. The song plays out like a wry short story: “He tried to fix it himself/ But it wouldn’t work this time/ We tried to get rid of the stuff/ So one of us could get up and drive.” It ends on what might as well be a thesis statement for the album: “Couldn’t laugh at it yet/ Wasn’t far enough from it yet.” There are references throughout to a car accident Hartzman was in when she was younger, an experience she tries to reclaim with the cover of Twin Plagues, which has her standing imposingly in front of a tower of crumpled cars.
But life has a funny way of never letting you forget what haunts you most. Just a few weeks ago, Hartzman and her bandmate and partner Jake Lenderman got into another car accident, which only underlined what she had already been thinking about when she was writing the album: the way history tends to repeat itself. That’s part of the reason she called the album Twin Plagues. It’s a phrase lifted from the writer Richard Brautigan (as was the title of I Was Trying To Describe You To Someone); Brautigan was talking about the pressure cooker that is the week between Christmas and New Year’s, two holidays looming like dark clouds of societal obligations. For Hartzman, it also acts as a signifier for recurrence, or the idea that everyone’s life has certain events that will inevitably repeat themselves, a cycle that cannot be escaped. “There’s no order to life, I’ve discovered,” Hartzman says rather philosophically. “But sometimes you can fake it just by noticing patterns.” Her songs return to the plagues that hang over her own existence; they feel like time collapsing into a mess of blurry memories.
That sort of writing also lends itself to the kinds of songs that Wednesday make. They all start in one place and end up in another, but they also sound like they constantly return to the same place, a haunted house where around every corner you see another fun-house reflection of yourself. On their new single “Cody’s Only” (which you can hear above), Hartzman sings of dreams that “take hours”; she’s had them all, the good and the bad, and they all feel fleeting, unattainable. All she feels is a constant numbness. Hartzman says she wrote the song to try and “put myself back in my body,” to reconnect with what feels tangible. But what she keeps getting stuck on is something that’s already fading: “Your warm breath on the mirror,” she repeats in the song’s pinched hook. She navigates the discontent and disassociation she feels with a gnawing specificity. Wednesday’s songs are youthful, but they already sound old and beaten-down.
Twin Plagues is out 8/13 on Orindal. Pre-order it here.