What does “indie rock” even mean? This has been a subject of much contention over the years, especially as the term has come to encompass music neither released on an independent label nor particularly rock-oriented in genre. There’s a lot to think about there for people who gives a shit about such distinctions, but the simplest answer is that you know it when you hear it. And to these ears, Wednesday are as indie rock as it gets.
Full of hard-hitting, guitar-powered tracks and released on Chicago-based Orindal Records (home of Julie Byrne, Advance Base, Gia Margaret, and Dear Nora among others), Twin Plagues — the new album from Asheville quintet Wednesday — qualifies objectively as independent rock music. But Karly Hartzman’s band also taps into a certain ideal of the genre as established in the late ’80s and early ’90s: shrouded in fuzz yet melodic and approachable, sometimes lackadaisical but occasionally explosive. Think Pavement. Think Sonic Youth. Think Cat Power. Think of that iconic Dinosaur Jr./My Bloody Valentine tour that deafened Gen X hipsters across America, of Yo La Tengo and Liz Phair and the Breeders. You know: indie rock.
Bands have been revisiting such foundational indie sounds again for a good solid decade at least, if they ever stopped. At this stage of the nostalgia cycle — after a decade that started with Parquet Courts and Yuck and ended with Snail Mail and Soccer Mommy, with no shortage of ’90s throwbacks in between — if you’re channeling these influences, you’d better be throwing heat. Fortunately, Wednesday have delivered a scorcher. These 12 songs feel dangerously volatile, like the distortion might actually leap out and burn you if you come too close. They’re just as weighty when they quiet down, as if burdened with a world-weariness that refuses to dissipate. Chalk it up to Hartzman’s vivid, vulnerable writing, as well as the crunching down-tuned guitar riffs she and Jake Lenderman unleash throughout. And save some credit for producers Alex Farrar and Adam McDaniel, who’ve ensured that everything sounds bracingly visceral and raw. Even songs like “Handsome Man” and “Toothache,” so accessible and melodic that you could almost slide them into an old MTV Buzz Bin compilation, course with urgency and barely contained chaos.
If Wednesday initially scan as yet another band working in a well-traveled tradition, they quickly begin to stand out for the unique way they swirl disparate aesthetics into that old slacker-rock template. The emphasis varies from song to song: They occasionally edge up to monolithically gloomy alt-metal, as on the absolutely filthy title track; there are frequent doses of shoegaze (best exemplified by “One More Last Time”) and its close cousin, noise-pop (behold the gorgeously discordant racket on “Three Sisters”); between Hartzman’s baked-in North Carolina twang and well-placed lap steel flourishes from Xandy Chelmis, there’s a lot of country in the mix, particularly on sparse ballads like “How Can You Live If You Can’t Love How Can You If You Do.”
These shifts don’t come across like some kind of stylistic grab bag. Everything feels like the outgrowth of the same organism — and Wednesday are definitely an organism, as opposed to Hartzman and her hired guns. In our recent Band To Watch feature, she called the band’s other members “geniuses” who have been essential to fleshing out the songs. This proves truer with each subsequent release; the jump in dynamism from last year’s impressive I Was Trying To Describe You To Someone is startling.
Hartzman is still the one animating it all, though. The idea here was to vanquish her memories of growing up weird and alienated in the South, but this line from “Birthday Song” is instructive: “I thought it really set the tone/ Couldn’t laugh at it yet/ Wasn’t far away from it yet.” Instead of moving past her youth, Hartzman transports us directly inside it, her drawling whimpers and wails translating personal memories into narration both relatable and surreal. Sometimes she expresses plainspoken tenderness from a pleasingly skewed perspective: “Rooms would look much better if they had you standin’ in them/ Jealous of the rooms who’s floors can feel your weight upon them.” Other times, a series of striking images coalesce into collage, as on “Cliff,” a blur of Miller Lite, Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, and someone’s ashes stored in a Dallas Cowboys urn. Every line on “Cody’s Only” is spectacular, from the evocative descriptions of a bathroom to koans like “I cannot figure out what I meant/ By living all those ways I did.” It’s like the late, great David Berman ghostwriting for Dilly Dally.
Twin Plagues proceeds like so for 38 compelling minutes, leading us past a burned-down Dairy Queen, toward the house where somebody broke his foot jumping out a window on acid, down long country roads to penultimate stunner “Gary’s,” with its domestic shouting match and baseball brawl and a toothless man smoking cigarettes while hooked up to an oxygen tube. In the end, even the lyrics Hartzman didn’t write are expertly chosen to fit into the album’s haunted, decrepit small-town vibe. Twin Plagues concludes with a lo-fi cover of “Ghost Of A Dog” by Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians. “How can that dog be/ Barkin’ in the back yard?” Hartzman wonders. “We ran over him years ago.” On an album that breathes new life into styles that seemingly refuse to die, such an eerie resurrection feels plausible.
Twin Plagues is out 8/13 on Orindal. Pre-order it here.
Other albums of note out this week:
• The Killers’ Pressure Machine
• Boldy James & The Alchemist’s BO JACKSON
• Quicksand’s Distant Populations
• A Great Big Pile Of Leaves’ Pono
• Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament’s I Should Be Outside
• Charles Spearin of Broken Social Scene and Do Make Say Think’s new instrumental album My City Of Starlings
• Devendra Banhart & Noah Georgeson’s Refuge
• Jungle’s Loving In Stereo
• alexalone’s ALEXALONEWORLD
• Still Woozy’s If This Isn’t Nice, I Don’t Know What Is
• Media Jeweler’s The Sublime Sculpture Of Being Alive
• Joy Orbison’s Still Slipping Vol. 1
• Willie Nile’s The Day The Earth Stood Still
• Dan + Shay’s Good Things
• Scritti Politti’s Cupid & Psyche 85 and Anomie & Bonhomie reissues
• Meet Me @ The Altar’s Model Citizen EP
• Kanye West’s Donda? Yeah, right…