At this rate, Wednesday might end up as the greatest indie band of their generation. Emerging at a time when the full extent of many artists’ aesthetic is “I Love The ’90s,” the Asheville group spent the first few years of this decade injecting their throwback fuzz-rock with actual innovation and unmistakable personality. Wednesday’s admiration for Alternative Nation is as obvious as anyone’s, but crucially, their shoegaze squalls and dense, noise-fucked churn are seasoned with varying degrees of twang via Xandy Chelmis’ resplendent lap steel, Jake Lenderman’s smoking licks, and Karly Hartzman’s unmoored whining drawl. Just as importantly, Hartzman litters her lyrics with vivid scenes from the decaying American South, so that a Wednesday album becomes a parade of profound mundanities spiked with humble small-town thrills and startlingly bleak lows.
Each successive full-length has made me love them more. Emerging in the pre-pandemic winter of 2020, Wednesday’s full-band debut I Was Trying To Describe You To Someone announced them as a standout among the Bandcamp masses; their quiet moments were as captivating as their eruptions, an ideal soundtrack for the bleary tableaus Hartzman sang about in piercing bursts of melody. Their 2021 breakthrough Twin Plagues leveled up in every way: the fidelity of the recordings; the ferocity of the guitars; the distinctive, devastating detail with which Hartzman brought her North Carolina upbringing to life. From the burned-down Dairy Queen to the ripped-off screen door to “holdin’ a crossbow in a family photo,” it was music with a real sense of place.
Most winsomely of all, last year’s covers album Mowing The Leaves Instead Of Piling ‘Em Up could have been a throwaway but instead was a revelation, applying Wednesday’s distortion-fried approach to a mixtape’s worth of expertly curated tunes. The inclusion of gems from acts like Chris Bell, Smashing Pumpkins, and modern shoegaze peers Hotline TNT — and especially the explosive take on Gary Stewart’s 1975 country chart-topper “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)” — communicated as much about these people as Hartzman’s own strip-mall Southern Gothic verse. In tandem with Boat Songs, the pinnacle of the solo catalog Lenderman has been building in parallel, Mowing The Leaves confirmed this crew as their genre’s most exciting rising stars.
Now comes Rat Saw God, Wednesday’s first LP since making the leap to indie powerhouse Dead Oceans. For the fourth year in a row, they’ve outdone themselves. The epic songs are more epic, the pop songs poppier, the country-fried desolation more potent and immersive. The music moves with a ragged grace and sudden explosiveness that can only come from constant gigging and woodshedding; it all feels natural, even when Wednesday stretch themselves, as on the downtempo Deftones-go-trip-hop vibe that turns “What’s So Funny” into the album’s most surprising stylistic pivot. Lyrically, Hartzman has never been more in her bag; the confidence she’s bringing to her vignettes is matched only by the fearless way she’s whipping around her voice, letting it waver in and out of tune in somber passages, pushing it into trembling moans and occasionally unhinged screams. Rat Saw God is an overall more polished effort, but it doesn’t undercut the livewire volatility that has always made Wednesday’s music feel just the right amount of unkempt.
Not that anyone would have expected a softening of Wednesday’s most abrasive impulses upon hearing “Bull Believer,” the eight-minute gauntlet-throwdown they released last fall to herald a new album somewhere far on the horizon. The first half channels Sonic Youth and Deerhunter but was inspired by season two of the country music history podcast Cocaine & Rhinestones, which intermingled the biography of George Jones with countless fascinating tangents about drag balls, pinball, the Protestant reformation, and, crucially, the origins of bullfighting. The band courses along swiftly, snaking through shadows, pulling back at times and then leaning way in as racing arpeggios bloom into massive string-bend fireworks. Then, nearly five minutes in — just after the reference to the nosebleed at the New Year’s party where “you were playing Mortal Kombat” — the bottom drops out, and Hartzman repeatedly whimpers “Finish him!” in the least flattering way imaginable, as if daring you to press skip. Finally, “Bull Believer” delivers its own fatality, crashing downward through several more layers of mantle and core and straight into half-time hell, Hartzman grunting and screaming as if incinerated by her own band.
Nothing else on Rat Saw God is quite so confrontational, but much of it breathes the same fire and/or plumbs the same depths. The album wrong-foots you immediately when opener “Hot Rotten Grass Smell” (in title alone, the kind of sensory feast Wednesday have made their name on) cranks up the distortion and volume a mere four seconds in. Wednesday often forgo standard verse-chorus structures — shrouding their hooks in winding structures worthy of North Carolina forebears Polvo, letting songs wander like backroads rather than serving up easily digestible refrains — and they’re just as likely to linger in the slow, sad underbelly of their sound as to let ‘er rip. Even in those somber stretches, when they languish the way Pavement sometimes would on songs like “Heaven Is A Truck,” their music is a kind of indie-rock comfort food. But they prepare it with enough idiosyncrasy and personal flair to be captivating and maybe even a little polarizing: too noisy for dinner parties, too earnest for the self-consciously cool.
About that earnestness: In sweetly tuneful bursts and nuclear warbles, Hartzman continues to chronicle the South with a mix of heartfelt pride and unflinching realism. Like Isaac Brock if he were chill or Katie Crutchfield if she were trashy, she has a keen eye for a particular kind of curdled Americana, be it the inane TV programming that blares from gas pumps at interchangable highway exits or the bitter old ladies who bitch about spoiled kids yet hand out full-size candy bars on Halloween. Rat Saw God overflows with those kinds of images: lice-riddled children in a baby pool, an overdose in a Planet Fitness parking lot, a semi truck with its top ripped off by the overpass. The Flannery O’Connor quote comes to mind: “Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”
The apotheosis of this approach is “Chosen To Deserve,” by far the poppiest, twangiest, most anthemic Wednesday song to date and quite possibly the best. What a flex to follow up the scorched-earth teaser track “Bull Believer” with a proper lead single this accessible. On “Chosen To Deserve,” buoyed by arena-rocking guitar and radio-ready lap steel, Hartzman lays out her delinquent life story as a warning to the love interest who was “chosen to deserve” her. Her laundry list of red flags — substance abuse, truancy, an inescapable gnawing loneliness — is presented as self-deprecation, but as ever, an affection for her background is baked in along with the trauma and regret. “I was out late sneakin’ into the neighborhood pool/ Then I woke up early and taught at the Sunday school,” Hartzman sings, as if the Nashville assembly line has gone rogue. “If you’re lookin for me, I’m in the back of an SUV,” she continues, “Doin’ it in some cul-de-sac, underneath a dogwood tree.” Keep evolving in this direction and Wednesday might end up as the greatest country band of their generation, too.
Rat Saw God is out 4/7 on Dead Oceans.
Other albums of note coming out this week:
• Yaeji’s With A Hammer
• Worriers’ Warm Blanket
• Jana Horn’s The Window Is The Dream
• Rae Sremmurd’s Sremm 4 Life
• Daft Punk member Thomas Bangalter’s Mythologies
• Tim Hecker’s No Highs
• Daughter’s Stereo Mind Game
• Ruston Kelly’s The Weakness
• Ellie Goulding’s Higher Than Heaven
• Hayden’s Are We Good
• FACS’ Still Life In Decay
• Daniel Caesar’s NEVER ENOUGH
• Billie Marten’s Drop Cherries
• Blondshell’s Blondshell
• Mudhoney’s Plastic Eternity
• Heather Woods Broderick’s Labyrinth
• Ben Gregory of Blaenavon’s debut solo album episode
• Josephine Foster’s Domestic Sphere
• HMLTD’s The Worm
• Sunrot – The Unfailing Rope
• Crocodiles’ Upside Down In Heaven
• North Americans’ Long Cool World
• Mast Year’s Knife
• Walter Smith III’ return to casual
• foil’s On The Wing
• Desire Marea’s On The Romance Of Being
• Susanna Hoffs’ The Deep End
• Issei Herr’s Distant Intervals
• Heretic Plague’s Context Is A Stumbling Corpse
• THEY.’s NÜ MOON
• Covet’s catharsis
• Lights’ dEd
• Forest Bees’ Between The Lines
• Black Eyes’ Speaking In Tongues: Black Eyes 2001-2004
• The Operation Ivy tribute album Mooorree Than Just Another Comp!
• Dionne Warwick’s The Complete Scepter Singles 1962-1973
• Linkin Park’s Meteora (20th Anniversary Edition)
• Scowl’s Psychic Dance Routine EP
• Fly Anakin’s Skinemaxxx EP
• Mediocre’s To Know You’re Screwed EP
• Tribulation’s HamartiaTides EP