Friday, March 21, 2014

album review: 'say yes to love' by perfect pussy

I've got a complicated relationship with noise rock.

It's a critically beloved genre, especially by Gen X critics coming up in the 90s who love Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., but I've always had a certain amount of difficulty breaking into it. Maybe it was just the walls of distortion and fuzz that defined 90s rock and the lack of distinctive driving tunes - or the fact that the mix seldom made it easy to parse out the lyrics - but the noise rock that I like often sticks closer to a punk edge rather than meandering shoegaze. After all, I like good melody lines, and the punk rock I like the most tends to have the most straightforward, potent melodies in the book, even if they are overwhelmed by waves of harsh distortion.

And thus, it wasn't long before a critically acclaimed act like Perfect Pussy caught my eye. Last year they built some impressive buzz with their debut EP I Have Lost All Desire For Feeling, which stuck close to the post-hardcore roots of their lead singer Meredith Graves. But the reason I was a little averse to covering the band at first was a noted production choice where the band chose to shove Meredith Graves' vocals near the back of the mix, which would make the lyrics even more difficult to figure out. Which, if you've followed this review series, is a production choice of which I'm rarely a fan.

That being said, with the strong critical buzz surrounding their debut album Say Yes To Love, especially with regards to their feminist-themed lyrical nuance, I felt obliged to take a look out of sheer curiosity. Would Perfect Pussy end up being the Savages of this year?

Well, not quite, but Say Yes To Love is still a very intriguing, very good, possibly even great album that tackles some pretty intriguing material in a way that's both intensely abrasive and yet extremely vulnerable. It's definitely not a record without its flaws, and there is definitely a barrier to entry with this album that will require multiple listens to pass, but it's definitely worth it in the end.

First, the instrumentation and production. Before we get to my inevitable issues with the vocal production, I will say I enjoyed most of the rest of the instrumentation and production on this album. As with most noise rock, there are plenty of atonal elements and feedback squeals punctuating everything, but what's telling is that they never really show up as sloppiness in the mix. The fast-paced guitar riffs, the thrumming bass, the clattering and jangling drums, they all have a crisp tightness to them that lends this album a lot of potent forward momentum, even if I would argue the hooks aren't exactly stellar and the melodies do tend to run together a bit. This allows the distortion to play out over the rest of the mix without compromising the foundation, which lends the track a chaotic explosive energy and yet a certain tightness you don't always see in noise rock. 

Now the most talked about element of Perfect Pussy when it comes to production is, as I mentioned earlier, the placement of the vocals - and I would be lying if I didn't say the only way I was able to parse out the lyrics was by getting the liner notes and following the best I could; without them, I was hopelessly lost. Now that's not saying that I don't understand the reasoning for the vocal placement, at least on a bigger thematic scale - the raw, confessional, often graphic nature of the lyrics makes sense to why they would be hidden, both on a personal and larger conceptual level. But that being said, I can't help but feel this choice does the lyrics and the album as a whole a bit of a disservice, because the lyrics really are the biggest selling point of this album.

Now as with most punk poetry, there isn't a lot of structure or meter or even much solid technical songwriting - and in this case, it doesn't matter, because the entire record is structured as the free-flowing inner monologue of a woman in the modern age, or perhaps the screaming at the walls when she thinks nobody can hear her. And from that we get some pretty visceral musings, from the contemplation of death and a lack of satisfaction with life on 'Driver' to dealing with societal expectations on the excellent track 'Interference Fits' to a number of troubled relationships, both sexual and otherwise. What makes this album feel so visceral is the framing: Meredith Graves is a smart enough songwriter to always be very conscious of her own flaws, yet never casting herself as the victim. So we end up getting songs like 'Work' and 'Dig' that take questionable sexual encounters and capture all of the complicated emotions running underneath them. On top of that, Perfect Pussy also goes for societal critique when it comes to relationship dynamics, from cheating in 'Big Stars' to being in a relationship with someone you don't love in 'Advance Upon The Real' to confronting the marriage paradigm on 'Interference Fits'. And while Perfect Pussy never really makes a defiant singular statement of purpose, this is the sort of record where such a statement would simplify the complicated emotional dynamics on display.

That's also a reason why I actually really appreciated the spots of quiet ambiance at the ends of 'Big Stars' and 'Interference Fits' - it's subtle, but you can hear the hints of a man's voice in the background, almost as if we've retreated into Meredith Graves' mind for a brief few minutes and now are resurfacing in the reality of the scene in which she's singing about. Sure, it's conjecture, but it definitely heightened the emotional impact for me. However, Perfect Pussy tries this again on 'Advance Upon The Real', and while you could hypothesize the ambient piece represents the guy's slow realization that she's not in love with him, I feel it and the subsequent track 'VII' go on a little too long, especially considering as ambient musical pieces on their own, they don't build a lot of compelling atmosphere. 

So in the end, I really like Say Yes To Love by Perfect Pussy, even if I do feel the album title is ironic or at least reflecting that we should say 'yes' to our own brand of love, not one defined by societal convention. I'm reminded of a lot of the reasons I like HBO's series Girls, a show that also is smart enough to frame its characters in a complex light as they might do or say awful things in a punishingly honest light. Perfect Pussy does a lot of the same thing with this album, and while there is a little more bloat than can be reasonably excused, it's thought-provoking and visceral, and 8/10 from me. Go check out Say Yes To Love by Perfect Pussy, it's definitely worth plenty of listens - albeit with the lyrics printed out in front of you, at least that first time.

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