Backseat Revivals and PJ Harvey: Wednesday Talk Surreal Southern Rock Saga ‘Bath County’
“Bath County,” the latest single from Asheville, North Carolina indie rock outfit Wednesday, drifts along a strange stream of consciousness. Biblical allusions and Dollywood, kids drinking “piss colored bright yellow Fanta,” a morbid scene in a Planet Fitness parking lot, and a sudden revival with Narcan. Over ragged guitar riffs, Wednesday frontwoman Karly Hartzman narrates it all in a voice that feels weary yet cut through with an anxiety that finally bursts as she screams, “You’ll be my baby til my body’s in the ground.”
Off Wednesday’s upcoming album, Rat Saw God, out April 7 via Dead Oceans, “Bath County” epitomizes Hartzman’s strengths as a storyteller and songwriter, as well as Wednesday’s charged, southern-fried indie rock. The song is a disjointed collage of scenes Hartzman witnessed (including the parking lot overdose, which was seen before a day riding roller coasters at Dollywood), but she renders them in a way that makes you think you could trace a narrative arc from the first verse to the last.
“That’s how a lot of my songs end up being written,” Hartzman tells Rolling Stone. “This connects to this because they’re the same tonally but happened on different days.”
“Bath County” is also steeped in the grand songwriting tradition of honoring influences and paying homage. Most obvious is the big shout-out to Drive-By Truckers, who took Wednesday out on tour with them recently. “They do the thing too that I’ve always wanted to aspire to,” Hartzman says. “Not just singing a song, but telling a story and forcing a song to bend to what you’re trying to say, and making it as wordy as you fucking want. They’re bending songs around their stories instead of the other way around.”
There’s also the “Bath County” video, which Hartzman directed and modeled after PJ Harvey’s “Man-Size” music video. The original clip, save for a short opening sequence, is entirely Harvey performing the song, looking straight at the camera, all one take. Hartzman, awed by Harvey’s confidence, channeled that for the “Bath County” video, though she admits with a laugh that there were few cracks she covered up with videos pulled from her phone.
“I ended up having to put all these other videos in it because there’s these little flashes in my eyes where I could see the uncertainty,” she says. “I had to cover that up with other stuff. I can’t believe that’s just her the whole video, doing her thing. It’s so much harder than it looks.” (Not to mention, the collage-like quality of the “Bath County” video is a fine complement to Hartzman’s cut-up lyrical style.)
More subtle though are the lyrical references to Loudon Wainwright III’s “I Am the Way” on “Bath County,” including the opening lines (“I can walk on water/I can raise the dead”) and the slightly tweaked refrain, “Every daughter of God/Has a little bad luck sometimes.” Hartzman describes Wainwright’s original as “kind of a funny song about some of the stuff involved with Christian values.” Though “Bath County” isn’t as overt, the Christ-like images pulled from Wainwright resonate deeply, in an eerie, gothic way, with the backseat Narcan revival Hartzman details later in the song.
Hartzman, who grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, has always been attuned to the way Christianity looms over life in the South, and especially the way it instills and thrives off a certain kind of fear. Coming from a Jewish family, she’s had first-hand experience with it, too.
“I had a friend who wasn’t allowed to watch Harry Potter, that kind of Christian,” she recalls. “And I think her mom once told me I was going to hell. It happened more than once. And I’d just be like, ‘Damn, I’m about to sleep over at your house; I’d rather you not feel this way about me.”
Even going to Jewish summer camps didn’t fully ease Hartzman’s sense that she was always somewhat out of place. And Hartzman is still grappling with that sensation these days — not in a religious context, but as the leader of an indie band from the South breaking through outside the region.
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“Indie music goes in and out of having big Southern scenes, like obviously, Athens was a spot back in the day,” she says. “But we haven’t had a moment quite like what Asheville is having — this resurgence of indie acts coagulating here. But I feel like when we go to Philly, it’s the same thing, feeling like transplants…” She pauses for a moment, then adds, “I don’t know how to describe it as similar, but it feels similar.”
After releasing Rat Saw God, Wednesday will embark on a lengthy tour in support of the album. The first leg kicks off April 26 at the Earl in Atlanta and wraps May 21 at Basement East in Nashville. A second North American leg launches June 15 at the Neighborhood Theatre in Charlotte, North Carolina, and wraps July 1 with a homecoming show in Asheville.