Wednesday Are Scary-Good Southern Indie-Rock Heroes on ‘Rat Saw God’
Last year, Asheville, North Carolina’s Wednesday put out a collection of cover songs called Mowing the Leaves Instead of Piling ‘em Up. Not only was it the best lawn-care referencing release by a North Carolina band since Superchunk’s classic 1992 single “Mower,” it also served as a killer distillation of Wednesday’s own unique strain of downhome indie-rock. The tracklist had Nineties shoegaze (Medicine), new shoegaze (Hotline TNT), tragic sad-guy legends (Vic Chesnutt, Chris Bell), a punk-guitar hero (Greg Sage), touchy-feely alt-rock (Smashing Pumpkins), alcoholic alt-country (“Drive-By Truckers’ “Women Without Whiskey”), alcoholic actual country (Gary Stewart’s “She’s Acting Single (I’m Drinking Doubles)”), and heartbroken honky-tonk (Roger Miller). They made it all sound of a piece. With influences like that, you’re bound to come up with some pretty decent emotional punishment in your own music, and Wednesday really bring it on Rat Saw God.
“God, make me good but not quite yet,” singer-guitarist Karly Hartzman offers early on, setting up the album’s beautifully afflicted tone. Wednesday are rootsy and noisy in pretty much equal measure, with two guitarists and a lap steel player. Their last album, 2021’s Twin Plagues, was a grotty treat, and last year lead guitarist MJ Lenderman released the fantastic solo record Boat Songs. With Rat Saw God, their fifth LP, they’re making music that can put them in the same conversation with the bummed-out greats they admire. If you’re a fan of Boygenius or Big Thief, you’ll like Hartzman’s fearless, anxious songwriting. And if you’re a fan of migraine headaches, you’ll love the band’s knack for busting out My Bloody Valentine-levels of refined amplifier torment. It comes together most searingly in the eight-minute angst avalanche “Bull Believer,” which works an impressively mean-eyed twist on Nirvana/Pixies-style ominously soft-meets-crushingly loud dynamics as Hartzman goes from a mythic image of cruelty (the grisly end of a bullfight) to land in on a moment of private inhumanity from her own story: “Passed out on a couch at a New Years party/I sat on the stairs with a never ending nosebleed/You were playing Mortal Kombat.” The song ends in its own orgy of violence, as Hartzman flips from the parched, pointed drawl she sings in and repeatedly shrieks “Finish him!” (the thing you hear in Mortal Kombat before a player gets their innards ripped out) against banshee wails of noise.
Not everything on the album is so confrontationally intense, but nothing in these songs ever comes easy. Even safe spaces are dangerous, like when Hartzman gets electrocuted at band practice during the bracing rocker “I Got Shocked.” The shabbily pretty “Formula One” features a truck decapitated by an overpass and birds crashing into her window. “Chosen to Deserve” recalls the Drive-By Truckers (who are name-checked in a song here) at their most skunk-Skynyrd explosive, as Hartzman sings about high school sport drinking and kids tripping on Benadryl until one of them ends up in the hospital, then lets us know: “If you’re lookin for me/I’m in the back of an SUV/Doin’ it in some cul-de-sac/Underneath a dogwood tree.” Ah, youth.
There’s a Flannery O’Connor story collection worth of Southern fucked-up-ness going on here. But Wednesday are just as interested in sucking you in with a walloping guitar banger as they are in freaking you out with their snapshots from the ruralburban coming-of-age abyss. These songs are so catchy you almost don’t notice the body count (RIP the “someone” who dies for unknown reasons in a Planet Fitness parking lot during “Bath County”). Hartzman has hick cred up the wazoo: “The Kletz brothers’ parents fight in the yard in their underwear/Bobby and Jimmy sit in the baby pool with lice in their hair,” she vividly scene-sets on “Quarry.” Such exotic grotesques make for an alluringly ratchet, localized mise en scène. But there’s something more universal going on here too. At the heart of this album is the relatable experience of owning the past that fucks you up because it’s also the one that made you the artist you are. “Memory always twists the knife,” she sings in “Turkey Vultures.” That does suck. But you got a good band now.
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