Album Review: Wednesday – ‘Rat Saw God’

Posted: by The Editor

My first few weeks living in North Carolina were a hot blue haze of cruising through roadside antique warehouses and carrying my secondhand treasures through the steam lines that wiggled off the ground of my apartment complex’s parking lot. Nothing could’ve prepared me for the late August Carolina heat. Each time I opened my front door, it was like someone had removed a towel from the dryer halfway through its spin cycle and flung it in my face. Walking felt more like wading. It was the kind of slow, heavy heat that smothers you like a fly in a honey pot.

I was living alone for the first time, melting into a coastal college town I knew next to nothing about and trying to keep myself company with music that called back to familiar memories while sounding at home in my new environment. I found myself revisiting the Lucinda Williams and Drive-By Truckers albums that my dad—an alt-country enthusiast who’d grown up in Detroit and settled in Brooklyn—used to play in the car. I’d spent little time in the South before moving down here for a three-year grad program, and these records had been my primary touchstones for landscapes I was now experiencing firsthand. 

Similarly in my regular rotation was Wednesday’s 2021 breakout, Twin Plagues– arguably the definitive countrygaze (or “bootgaze”) record, one that elevated the scrappy Asheville 5-piece to trailblazer status in their rapidly growing hybrid genre. On days where the air felt as thick and sludgy as one of Wednesday’s chainsaw-revving riffs, I’d let Twin Plagues soundtrack my strolls through the abandoned bus station reclaimed by weeds and strewn with rusty shopping carts, mad dashes across the 6-lane road running between Waffle House and Hooters, the milkshakes and watery beers I double-fisted behind the CookOut. When I think back on those first few months, the scenes flash through my head like a Wednesday music video—give or take the tour footage, goth clown weddings, and K-Mart parking lot dance parties (the billboards warning mortals to repent or face eternal damnation remain). 

The way bandleader Karly Hartzman stitches together narratives out of fragmented memories is not only essential to her songwriting, but to the kitschy, off-kilter patchwork of the broader Wednesday universe. You can see it in her monthly video diaries, the ephemera archive on her Tumblr, her homemade merch—which includes framed locks of her own hair, accompanied by polite requests asking buyers not to use it for cursing and/or cloning purposes. At the center of all this are the yarns she spins about youthful misadventures in southern suburbia.

Perhaps nowhere is this multimedia-scrapbook approach to songwriting more apparent than on Rat Saw God’s second single, “Chosen to Deserve,” whose music video features past and present footage of Hartzman with her parents and older sister. It’s a zillennial woman’s answer to Drive-By Truckers’ ode to adolescent dumbassery, “Let There Be Rock.” The scuzzily triumphant “Chosen to Deserve” sees Karly Hartzman running down her own laundry list of—to quote the Truckers—“crazy stupid shit,” regaling her beloved with tales of playing hooky, pissing cheap liquor in the street, and doin’ it in the back of an SUV. “We always started by tellin’ all our best stories first / So now that it’s been a while I’ll get around to tellin’ you all my worst,” she sings, instantly solidifying “Chosen to Deserve” as both a dirtbag anthem and a surprisingly tender love song about telling the person you love what a gross idiot you used to be (and occasionally still are), safe in the knowledge that they’ll keep loving you anyway. 

“Quarry” features similarly illustrative storytelling, with Hartzman waxing on suburban legends: the neighbors’ lice-and-scoliosis-afflicted toddlers, the crabby old woman who calls America “a spoiled child that’s ignorant of grief” but isn’t above handing out full-size candy bars on Halloween, the Jewish boy who gets sent away after knocking up the preacher’s daughter. This litany of hometown scandals culminates in a local couple getting marched across their lawn in handcuffs after a police raid reveals guns and coke hidden in their walls. Gossip that twists through high school locker rooms and Church potlucks like a game of Telephone bleeds from Hartzman’s pen as gospel. 

True to its Southern Gothic roots, Rat Saw God exists at a crossroads where horror and holiness meet—just look at the cover art, the band members posed for an Antebellum-style family portrait with blood smeared around their mouths. The record kicks off with the ragged lap steel distortion of “Hot Rotten Grass Smell” turning the neon glow from a nail salon sign into a halo, and it ends with the intersection of a Panera, a Starbucks, and a Dollar General making up a sacred geometry over the Strokes-y riffage of “TV in the Gas Pump.” There’s a grimy, perverse divinity enveloping Rat Saw God at every turn in between: the sex shops have Biblical names, slurred one-liners like “pour one out for all my guys” sound like prayers, the dizzying whirr of cymbals and guitar fuzz make getting electrocuted during band practice almost indistinguishable from being born-again. 

Occasionally, Rat Saw God’s narratives cast Karly Hartzman as an almost messianic figure, perhaps a reaction to the Christian-centrism of the American South (Hartzman was raised Jewish, but attended Bible Camp and Sunday School because her parents didn’t want her to feel left out). She opens “Bath County” by proclaiming, “I can walk on water / I can raise the dead,” and embarking on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land (Dollywood, of course). Though she may wish to heal the ailments of the suffering souls she meets in her travels, she’s powerless to help the stranger whose overdose she witnesses in the parking lot of a Planet Fitness, and instead seeks momentary solace in blasting Drive-By Truckers songs and reminding herself that “every daughter of God has a little bad luck sometimes.” It’s her blood-curdling shriek of “be my baby til my body’s in the ground!” that hits the listener with a double-lightning rod of God’s love and wrath. Over the whining strings of “Turkey Vultures,” Hartzman ignores the crowd “fired up about Jesus,” and undergoes a transfiguration of her own that’s as grotesque as it is glorious: “I wrap the heavy gauze around me / I get unfocused, make me blurry / I tether myself three feet from me / I do not feel my ugly body.” It’s moments like these that showcase how Wednesday have continued to push their signature sound to its most daring extremes. They’ve turned up the distortion and the twang in equal measure, but never in a way that feels like the tug-of-war of a band stretched too thinly across genre lines. Rat Saw God can go from spewing and sputtering like tractor tires hubcap-deep in the mud to soaring above rooftops at the drop of a cowboy hat.

The most ambitious and perhaps obvious example of this boundlessness is the recent live show highlight, “Bull Believer.” When choosing a debut single to announce their signing to one of the most renowned indie record labels, most bands would not land on a 9-minute stoner metal epic inspired by an episode of the country music podcast Cocaine & Rhinestones. Wednesday are not most bands. “Bull Believer” starts at the height of a bullfight and drags all its gory, red-flagged drama across time and space to a moment of loud-and-quiet rage at a New Year’s party, where Hartzman sits alone with a “never-ending nosebleed,” ignored by her no-good Mortal Kombat-playing boyfriend. She runs the gamut from pathetic deference (“God make me good but not quite yet”) to murderous fury, borrowing the famous catchphrase from the “Fatality” gameplay feature as she thunders “Finish him!” repeatedly, boiling over herself with each guttural cry. 

On the opposite end, some of Rat Saw God’s most understated moments are also some of its most crushing. “Formula One” is the latest of many hushed, hazy duets between Hartzman and guitarist Jake “MJ” Lenderman; the two harmonize their way through an unexpectedly romantic scene of falling asleep to a car crash on TV. Penultimate track “What’s So Funny” starts off with the shrugging nonsensicality of a Pavement deep cut. Its inspiration comes from lap steel-player Xandy Chelmis’s run-in with a hive of yellowjackets, getting stung while Lenderman looked on, consumed in a fit of laughter as his bandmate succumbed to the swarm (this reaction feels pretty on-brand for a songwriter whose breakout solo album included a Jackass shoutout in a love song; we can only hope that a future Wednesday music video will involve a Beehive Limo reenactment). Hartzman’s awe at her friend’s stupidity elevates it to the sublime: “Ran the chainsaw till it ran out of gas / And you dropped it / ‘Cause you got stung by yellowjackets / You amazing idiot.” The slapstick comedy of “What’s So Funny” makes its conclusion all the more devastating, as Hartzman deadpans, “Memory always twists the knife / Nothing will ever be as vivid as the darkest time of my life / Found out who I was / And it wasn’t pretty.” Therein lies the transcendent, dust-and-blood-streaked magic of a Wednesday’s dirtbag gospel. Rat Saw God embodies both the brightness and bleakness of its sprawling lyrical landscape. It lifts trash to heavenly heights and humbles all things holy, its beauty and its ugliness constantly balancing each other out while threatening to tear each other apart.

Disappointing / Average / Good / Great Phenomenal

Rat Saw God is out everywhere Friday 4/7 with vinyl, cassette, and CDs available via Dead Oceans.

Grace Robins-Somerville | @grace_roso

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