Is it possible for The Coathangers to continue surprising me? At this point, it seems unlikely, if only because I’m used to it. But with the release of their sixth full-length album, I will testify – still – that there have been few times during the past dozen-ish years that they’ve not impressed me.
I mean, I used to think they were more distinctive when Candice Jones was in the lineup on keyboards, probably because it seemed like she fit the least. But the array of strange little masterpieces they’ve created in the years since she departed has led me to rethink that viewpoint. Their voices have steadily matured, without losing their individuality, which is to say they sing now rather than squawk and screech. Julia Kugel has mastered her own odd style on electric guitar, one that’s decidedly minimal and yet every note sounds almost extraterrestrial. Bassist Meredith Franco steadies the trajectory with modest, precise grooves that sound effortless but aren’t. Stephanie Luke has grown into a full-on monster on her drumkit; watching her using all four limbs at once to give each song the percussive patterns and impact it needs, often changing it up several times in the span of three minutes, leaves me in awe. Though they are known to switch instruments among them, the three of them mostly stay in those chosen zones.
The Devil You Know comes across as a more fully realized rendering of the spit-and-polish they underwent with 2016’s Nosebleed Weekend. It was recorded in the same L.A. studio (Valentine) with the same producer (Nic Jodoin). And as the advance press release rightfully stresses, it melds the members’ divergent styles more seamlessly than ever.
With Julia’s sanguine verses, tender voice and uplifting guitar frolic/piano accents giving way to Stephanie’s power-chording counter-punches and a chaotic, mutated surf-rock interlude, there’s no finer example than opening track “Bimbo” of the band’s newfound skill marrying the calm and the storm into one highly melodic, infectiously catchy and concise 2:45 nugget of perfection… somewhat ironically, one about letting go and moving on after a split-up when “the world’s got other plans.”
Other high points are a-plenty. A primitive, Cramps-like aura rattles “5 Farms,” its throbbing guitar stabs turning psychotic on a dime. “Step Back,” an admonition about substance abuse and destructive behavior, is delivered with appropriately nightmarish clatter. “Memories” zips along with Julia’s most frenzied and thrilling guitar work of the album. A percolating bassline permeates “Hey Buddy,” Stephanie’s crowning vocal performance. An irresistible, jittery jolt about compulsive hoarding tendencies, “Stasher” is a funny throwback in the vein of earlier sillies like “Stop Stomp Stompin’.” The intoxicating (yes, I said it) “Last Call” sounds like three songs in one, and is among the most engrossing tracks they’ve ever recorded.
Then, of course, there’s “F the NRA.” Which I wasn’t even going to address, until the band themselves made a big deal about it, releasing a video for the song coupled with an essay from Kugel on the website Talkhouse in which she claims the band is “not against guns or gun ownership” and “not endorsing any political party’s agenda” when the rest of the essay makes it plain that that is, in fact, what she’s saying. It’s easy but simple-minded to scream “Fuck the NRA!” as an emotional retort when there’s another school shooting dominating the news cycle, but contrary to its big bad boogyman standing in the skulls of the left, the National Rifle Association is as repulsed by such tragic incidents as anyone else. The NRA advocates responsible gun ownership and use, not violence and criminality. Its members aren’t out there blowing theaters to ribbons, the scumfucks doing that don’t give a shit about the NRA. The overwhelming majority of guns used in crimes bypass legal purchase/background checks anyway, and no additional restrictions on law-abiding citizens are going to change that. Criminals break the law, by definition. It’s like writing an anti-drunk driving song called “Fuck AAA.” Not to mention that, ideologically, “F the NRA” is a complete 180 from their first album’s “Don’t Touch My Shit,” an equally crude rant that might also be the world’s greatest Objectivist private property rights anthem! Betcha they never even considered that.
Despite Kugel’s stated “fear of backlash” for speaking out with her song and essay, it’s actually not all that brave a stance when 99.9% of your buddies in the entire music/entertainment industry claim the same point of view. On the contrary, it’d be braver to take a stance that your label, your PR team, and many of your fans would be taken aback by. Instead of lobbing loogies at the NRA, it’d be braver to attack hypocritical peers in the entertainment biz who glorify gun violence – moviemakers, actors, rappers, video game makers, hell this even applies to The Coathangers, who once posed for a photo brandishing firearms! “F the NRA” isn’t brave. It’s childlike, and it’s typical.
But “typical” is one thing The Coathangers rarely are (thankfully). There’s always been more B-52’s, Yoko Ono and No Wave in their cauldron than the more commonly cited inputs of punk, garage and Riot Grrrl, but at this juncture the band’s skill has ripened to the point that they can really take any stimulus or inspiration that’s caught in their wide net and work it into something wholly their own. Musically, they are all over the place, and yet they have their unique sound. It seems like it should be a mess, like it shouldn’t gel, but it does; there’s no other band that sounds quite like them. At this point in rock ‘n’ roll’s far-flung, played-out history, that’s truly rare, and wondrous.
Thus, on an album of sometimes dizzying extremes, they can sign off with “Lithium,” a work of subdued, sublime beauty unlike anything else that just transpired. It might as well be a new White Woods single. It’s stunning. Taking the stage in metallic gold hooded dresses, akin to Druid-like goddess-creatures from a TOS Star Trek episode, The Coathangers opened with “Lithium” at a recent show I was fortunate enough to catch in Santa Ana on Feb. 20, the first date of their current tour. It was a bold, unexpected move from a band that has traditionally played up its more raucous punk side for live shows. It was, come to think of it, rather brave.
The Devil You Know