“Chosen To Deserve”, a knotty relationship anthem on Wednesday’s third album, features one of the more unusual ODs described in a rock song. “My friends all took Benadryl ’til they could see shit crawlin’ up the walls”, guitarist/vocalist Karly Hartzman sings, her voice twisting into a slurred twang. “One of those times my friend took a little too much/He had to get his stomach pumped”.
It’s a complicated moment, funny but also harrowing, and she sounds simultaneously embarrassed by her juvenile escapades, impressed by their wildness, and relieved that she and her friends survived long enough to put the memory into a song. A sharp lyricist with a keen eye for revealing details, and a surprisingly deft singer with the ability to add fine gradients of emotion to a throwaway line, Hartzman stands by all her dumb decisions, all her glaring flaws, all her bad experiences: “I’m the girl you were chosen to deserve”, she declares, then adds: “Thank God that I was chosen to deserve you”.
The song is an apt introduction to this Asheville, North Carolina band, who’ve already released two studio albums and a covers collection in their few years together. All of Wednesday’s influences and concerns, along with all their vices and virtues, are rammed into the rambunctious five-and-a-half minutes of “Chosen To Deserve”: a massive Southern-rock riff from MJ Lenderman, a scribbly Sonic Youth/Crazy Horse guitar attack, smears of cosmic lap steel from Xandy Chelmis. Their love of ’90s alt.rock has already prompted comparisons to acts like Snail Mail and Phoebe Bridgers, but Wednesday cast a wider net: at times on Rat Saw God, they sound like a skewed country band several whiskey neats into a set, at other times they’re snarling skatepunks hellbent on making trouble.
The quintet laid out their influences on last year’s wide-ranging Mowing The Leaves Instead Of Piling ’Em Up, which is more essential and revealing than most covers albums. They studied the honky-tonk storytelling of Gary Stewart, the psychedelic melodicism of Smashing Pumpkins, and the Southern eccentricity of Vic Chesnutt, but perhaps no other band exerts more of an influence than the Drive-By Truckers. Wednesday toured with them last year, covered “Women Without Whiskey”, even added a shout-out on their new song “Bath County”. Most crucially they share with that band a similar sense of place and a penchant for open-ended songwriting. “They’re doing what I wanna do when I’m older,” Hartzman tells Uncut.
On Rat Saw God, Wednesday take those lessons and work them into their own songs. Like her heroes, Hartzman understands that she’s her best source of materials – not just her emotions and ideas, but her background, where she grew up and the people she grew up with. Instead, this is an album full of everyday tragedies: overdoses, police raids, car crashes, ungrounded amps, unwanted pregnancies, head lice, nosebleeds, and a relentless loneliness that floods you even when you’re among friends, bandmates or lovers.
On “Quarry”, she gives listeners a tour of her old neighbourhood, depicting its hard-luck denizens with sympathy and specificity: there’s the old woman at the end of the block who complains about spoiled children “but then she gives out full-size candy bars on Halloween”. And the Kletz brothers, with head lice and “flat parts on their crew cuts from layin’ their heads on their knees”. Those poetic details accumulate into poignant images of home, but Hartzman make no stabs at romanticising this milieu.
That’s because her bandmates won’t let her. They add dramatic punch to these songs, enough to remind you Wednesday is a band and not a singer-songwriter project. They’re sympathetic to her travails, but never so much that it gets in the way of the runaway tempo of “TV In The Gas Pump” or akimbo riffs of “Hot Rotten Grass Smell” or the trippy tempo changes on “Turkey Vultures”. They might be the friends she keeps singing about, the ones doing Benadryl and playing Mortal Kombat all night, especially when they blast “Bull Believer” wide open, wailing discordantly while Hartzman screams, “Finish him! Finish him!” Once they hit that dramatic pique, they keep going, maintaining the din for nearly two minutes. Rarely does so much noise convey such raw melancholy.
Remarkably, the world they create together never curdles into sentimentality. As much as these songs dwell on their past, they make no room for nostalgia. “Memory always twists the knife”, Kartzman sings on “What’s So Funny”, mixing humour and horror until they’re indistinguishable. “Nothing will ever be as vivid as the darkest time of my life”. Wednesday turn that stabbing pain into triumphant rock’n’roll.