by Sebastian Cruz
In the eyes of many, country music has fallen from the state that it occupied “way back when” (the “back when” still as frustratingly undefined as ever). The institution of pop country, its Billboard-topping, chart-stopping, quality-lopping ubiquity, has been a major sticking point against the genre, hence the whole “everything except rap and country” opinion that’s become an example of music consumption snobbery, and yet, still retains its adamant listeners. But when one looks closer just beneath what the radio plays, a rich tapestry of alt-country history reveals itself, going both forwards and backwards all at once.
Thus: Asheville, NC foursome Wednesday, composed of the typical vocals/guitar/drums composition with lap steel wizard Xandy Chelmis rounding out the quartet. On new album Rat Saw God, Wednesday seeks to fully push the alt-country standards of straightforward, confessional, descriptive songwriting into the hazy high territories of shoegaze and 90’s-inflected alt rock. Much akin to Jake Lendermann’s solo ventures as… MJ Lendermann, the band’s main virtue is this exact fusion of the fuzz with the frank. Alt-country acolytes like David Berman and our very own Oberlin alum, the late Jason Molina, indirectly fuel Wednesday’s Karly Hartzman’s own blithe observations through an America that, while remaining the deeply colorfilled landscape so romanticized, now retains a subterranean sadness and melancholy that can never be separated from it.
This leads to an album that is mostly comprised of these strangely ornate run-throughs of America’s bruised heartland. Oftentimes, Hartzman’s observations are presented without a clear affect. It’s not a monotone per se, more so a casual glance of everything that speeds by her fast. The “hot rotten grass smell” on the song of the same name, “a sex shop off the highway/with a biblical name” on “Turkey Vultures.” “Quarry” is perhaps the most encompassing of these inter-song vignettes. It’d be a waste to simply list them devoid of their musical contexts, but suffice it to say that Hartzman’s portraits run the gamut from darkly hilarious (“The kid from the Jewish family got the preacher's kid pregnant”) to starkly dysfunctional (“The Kletz brothers' parents fight in the yard in their underwear/Bobby and Jimmy sit in the baby pool with lice in their hair.”)
That undercurrent of deeply-embedded darkness heralded earlier was no fluke: Hartzman is careful to completely rend the scene entirely with her band to helm the vanguard with her. The curdled milk-esque guitar scuzzes barrel through the right and left channels on the roiling “Got Shocked” and the equally roiling yet romantic “Chosen to Deserve,” a paean to the vulnerable, ugly conversations one has with the one they love, as the images of mid-day alcohol-diluted and Benadryl-loaded debauchery leads into the final small epiphany on an album full of them: “Now all the drugs are gettin' kinda borin' to me/Now everywhere is loneliness and it's in everything.”
No mention of songwriting ambition can sidestep the most obvious case: the true, meaty opener of “Bull Believer” was, and continues to be, a disorienting spot, for its final three and a half minutes (out of a total eight and a half minutes) easily knock the wind out of whoever happens to be carried into its tempest. The grisliest tune of all, the song details the titular “bull” flailing against its worst vices. There are choked whispers of bottles, blood and “a corpse with a spirit.” It all breaks. Calling upon the immortal Mortal Kombat catchphrase “finish him,” Hartzman — harnessing “the lightning [that] comes up from the ground and goes up to the sky” — shreds her voice into a double-barreled spectral rage/anguish. And with only two words, too.
Nothing else on the album comes close to such an intensity. The following “Got Shocked” gives a brief comedown summary: “First I felt the thunder then blacked out at band practice/I'm told that I screamed and stood up/Then I sat down and wept after the amp got unplugged.” “Bull Believer,” thus, made me wonder: how come nothing else on the album reaches that emotional peak? Hartzman doesn’t clue any of us into an answer, however, the lack of emphasis on the most harrowing emotional pockets aren’t the most important moments at all. There’s a certain oxymoronic dichotomy with how she treats the battered and bruised personal parables of “Bull Believer” vs. what she sees in her day-to-day. She is privy to accidents, deaths, bad trips and bad highs, all with a crackly, distant and curious vocal timbre that suggests a certain weariness. The commentary on these events are scant, because what right does she have of her own perspective on all of these tragedies? She already has her own.
Everything ends on the relatively quiet “TV in the Gas Pump,” the dusk-basked ode to the roads she passes through. The Panera Breads and Dollar Generals and Starbucks may as well be local fare. It’s never explicit, but there’s something almost small about every corner of the world Hartzman moves through. Not miniscule small, just compact. Almost quaint in their little oddities. The “TV in the gas pump/Blares into the dark,” so she purports. There’s a lifetime of desperation, stoned days and drunken nights buried all around in that dark, and Hartzman is worried that if she blinks, she might miss it.