Marquee Strain - By Volume

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Marquee Strain

Robin ponders the connections between two classic records. Television's Marquee Moon and Women's Public Strain. He also cooks some food, but that's less consequential. Author: on April 4, 2014
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Last week I was cooking to Marquee Moon. I think cooking is pretty much the best way to listen to a pre-established masterpiece. It is the most passive experience of the most monumental thing, because your focus is on something other than counselling yourself over epic riffs and life-changing lyrics. And the best thoughts about music come passively, too. I realised that night, without actually doing any follow-up research, without so much as comparing them, that Women’s Public Strain is the second coming of Marquee Moon.

Okay? Bear with me.

Neither are really what you would expect of punk records. In Big Day Coming, an amazingly dense book about indie rock and Yo La Tengo and mostly baseball – baseball is precisely why it is dense – Jesse Jarnow tenderly sums up my feelings about Television: they are not what one expects when they hear the word “punk”, but are, for a while, what one might understand it as. For many budding punks, Marquee Moon is a checkpoint, an album you’ve been told about. In my case, it was in reference to The Strokes, which shows how far a kid has to come to make it to “punk”. (It also shows how much stock people put in the relation between genre and place, or even hair. Either way, I’ve never been to New York.) Punk and Television were correlated – I picked the CD out of my hometown’s only record store, and out of its substantial “punk” section. I was rewarded with a fine jewel cased album and enthusiastic conversation from the aged punk who served me, who lives in Tunbridge Wells, so is probably pissed about who he has to sell music to.

I am using the word punk a lot, I know. And that section is by no means sacred. And neither was the actual punk section in that actual record store; to this day I own only one Undertones record, which I bought there. It is called Dig Yourself Deep and it’s one of those records only a clueless teenager would buy, a crooked document of the second era of a classic band, with none of the components (or members) that made the band special the first time around. I still don’t know shit about the Undertones but I love those songs.

When I put it on Marquee Moon for the first time, I was struck by how easy it sounded. It sounded even cleaner than The Strokes, who use lo-fi like a vacuum cleaner, or half of the standard rock – and, I confess, British public school prog rock – I was previously repping. Its riffs were clarified – Television wanted you to hear each one, even if they interlocked with more attractive chords, even if they were part of a polyrhythm. To me, the production on that record sounds better than good, it sounds intentional. “Marquee Moon” itself has always sounded to me like it’s being performed outdoors, on the crispest and clearest and bluest of evenings. “Torn Curtain” sounds like it was made for the stage, and got performed perfectly. The rule of three requires that I tell you “See No Evil” is awesome and I feel like doing forward rolls whenever the bridge comes in.

Public Strain sounds intentional too. By sheer coincidence, it also has an outdoor vibe, when it wants to – a less crisp one than “Marquee Moon”, though. These songs shiver with the cold, facing it like facing an unruly demon. We’ve long held our belief, my Women-enthralled friends and I, that Public Strain is the ultimate snow record, but really it’s an extreme weather album – snowstorms, heatstrokes, and the time spent counting the seconds between lightning and thunder. The sense of place on Public Strain is less perfect Polaroid than Marquee Moon, more ‘wherever the fuck you can’t see shit!’. If the internet ever asks me for my location again and I’m listening to Women, that will be my answer. Because it begins with a song called “Can’t You See”, which I now realise is the most sombre use of sarcasm in music ever. It’s a taunt on a song with an upsettingly vague vocal performance and an oddly heart-breaking bassline that feels both muffled and also the song’s most significant motif. The rest is noise; the record leaps off that noise. “Can’t you see” is one of the first lyrics you quote upon hearing Public Strain and very much one of the last.

Artwork: Christian Harrop

Artwork: Christian Harrop

Still, Public Strain suffers with riffs. Really, really good ones, ones that sound strangely reminiscent of Television. I relate them all back to “Venus”, the second track on Marquee Moon. On “Venus”, Verlaine and his band do the kind of back and forth a pantomime audience do with their gleeful actor: “Did you feel low?!”, they ask in the chorus. “…”, he pauses. “Nah”, he grins. And then the song locks into a trade-off of guitars that roll up the frets like they’re tracks, until they bottom out completely. That’s how it sounds, at least, but the chorus comes around again.

I sequence “Eyesore” after “Venus” now. “Eyesore” is the last contact Women made as Women, and appropriately, I’m hesitant to say it has a chorus. It barely has a calling card, a classic moment, which is why it’s likely to be considered a very minor masterpiece – it’s a kind of unspoken work of art among those who have heard it, and you can’t really bring those forward for inspection. “Venus” has a secret code fans can show each other to get in the Television fan club, but “Eyesore” just has this one, mysterious lyric, subtracted from the rest of the song’s inaudible lyrics that cease to matter beyond proof that this record wasn’t made ex nihilo: “Give out your number now!”.

If “Eyesore” has anything, really, it’s those dueling guitars in its… bridge? Can you call it that? Who cares. It’s a moment where Women climb down from the gigantic song they’ve been indifferently and accidentally making. And like the soloing on “Venus”, it’s interrupted, but not by a voice. It’s interrupted by a bum note. Or at least it’s interrupted by a bummer of a note – that sequence sounds beautiful, as good as the Women guitarists got at weaving their riffs around each-other, but it suddenly sounds shit out of luck, stung by something. Others who have more knowledge of Women have postulated that Public Strain sounds like a record of conflict and one that knows it’s the beginning of the end. And perhaps, that’s what that shitty, less pretty note signifies – that this isn’t a happy ending. So maybe, beyond having a senseless sense of place – the ‘I’ll be where everyone’s lost’ of noise rock – Public Strain exists at The End.

Um. Yeah. How is Public Strain like Marquee Moon again? “Venus” and “Eyesore” are twin songs, for sure, and I’ll throw “Heat Distraction” into that mix. But doesn’t Public Strain also just sound like the remnants of one of those straight-laced punk records, dirt dusted off its suit jacket? Despite its turbulence and its unease, it sounds so confident, the work of guitar band geniuses, strumming and picking and playing in weird time signatures that are too real for you. Women were no Interpol; their music was too ambiguous and accidental and unromantic for that. They were more like nihilists Unwound, and Public Strain is sort of this decade’s Leaves Turn Inside You. Also they’re from Calgary… sooo, yeah. Not Interpol.

I think of Public Strain as a sort of punk rock skeleton. It is Marquee Moon twisted and turned and skinned, like that episode of the Simpsons where the flesh-eating virus gets the whole family. It has “Penal Colony”, an ambient rumination on noise rock, which reads off a list of painful experiments until there’s nothing left: “and then you’re gone com / plete / ly”. Those words are the ones I find hardest to take of the dozen or so I hear on Public Strain – each syllable falls into its own despair. But it still sounds perfectly constructed, like the machine from the Kafka story it’s named after – a testament to gruesome efficiency. The more I’ve listened to Public Strain the more I think it could have, on another day, been a clean-as-a-whistle indie rock classic, or a beaming 70s punk record. But it’s this, instead, a bruised, sparsely recorded testament to still being awesome when you know the end is coming and you’re half of what you were and can’t do shit about it. Point of order: WOMEN, the self-titled record that preceded Public Strain, is probably their actual classic record. It is at least supposed to be; it sounds brighter, shows off more, and does its weird sound experiments with pride. Their actual classic, though? It’s Public Strain, of course. Kick it while it’s down.

Until I listened to Marquee Moon last week, there was one song on Public Strain I’d always truly hated – “Drag Open”. “Drag Open” was the reason I thought of the record as an imperfect classic. It sounded to me like a smugly abrasive move, its dissonant barrier of non-chords levelled with immediacy and spite. Where Public Strain asked Unwound’s big noise rock question – “Who Cares” – for a second time, this song seemed to want to give me a good, violent reason to care. But I’ve realised there’s the same solemn beauty living in “Drag Open” as there is in “Eyesore” and “Heat Distraction” and “Marquee Moon”. It’s just that “Drag Open” is a truer piece of noise. It is one of those songs where light only cracks through the smallest of slits. Women only let up for a few seconds at a time on “Drag Open”, playing loosely and devastatingly until a chord sequence comes together and the right phrase hits them. Which, on this song, is just: “You’re such a drag… open!”. Those kind of moments are sacred, in their own way, because the rest of the song has to establish them: they’re moments too significant to be in a happier, catchier, probably way-better-live song.

It’s probably just that one riff in “Venus”. Public Strain is locked into my mind and Marquee Moon is a piece of punk rock history that’s hard to forget. They come together pretty easily, I guess, but both also feel detached from the punk rock gene, you know? One feels too beautiful for that world, and the other feels like the town’s pariah. Isn’t it odd that both could kind of… sound the same? I hope someday someone buys Public Strain off me, in a record store that I totally hope to own one day (in a less shitty town), and thinks, “this isn’t what I had in mind”. But they’ll see the scenes Public Strain wants them to see, and wonder what the fuck happened to this band of brilliant musicians. Is this a record of bad luck? Or did they mean all of it? Probably both.

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