Album Review: The Ettes – “Wicked Will”

What makes a band like the Ettes so fascinating is that while they’re lumped in with the regular garage rock/punk that decide to stick to basics and pay homage to the sound (rather than the artists) who came before them, they still manage to have a subtle touch that makes them so unique — in this case, their Patsy Cline-style country leanings mixed with the power and fury of the Stooges. Being fronted (and numbered) predominantly by women, it would be easy to compare them to any number of garage-leaning girl groups of the day, from the Vivian Girls to Wild Flag, or to any of the retro-indie groups like Cults (they’re not, and I get the feeling that Cults will disappear from the public consciousness within months, the good lord willing). But the Ettes deserve so much more than ranking among their peers of girl-fronted groups, let alone other garage-minded indie bands: they do it right! They get it! And it’s all because the Ettes have plenty of pop smarts, but they sound like a class bully, waiting to throw a punch at any time they get the chance.

The Ettes’ latest, Wicked Will, is a bit of a retreat from their previous album, Do You Want Power, which was produced by the Reigning Sound’s Greg Cartwright and featured a bit more diversity in terms of style. Wicked Will, produced with Liam Watson (who did their first two albums), returns to the raw and raucous power combined with their pop smarts that made those first two albums such engaging listens. But fret not: just because they dropped the stylistic challenges of Power doesn’t mean that they didn’t take a little bit of that record with them to make Wicked Will all the better.

Why the Ettes are better at self-reflection than anyone else, after the jump.

Jem, Poni, and Coco.

I will say this from experience from seeing them live: The Ettes are precisely the kind of band you cannot mess with. Even when their stage performances look like a neatly contained hurricane, between Maria “Poni” Silver’s furious whiplash attack on the drums and the blown-out fuzzy-and-melodic basswork of Jeremy “Jem” Cohen, the sound of the songs are just as wild and primitive. While the slightly more complex arrangements in Do You Want Power let each player shine simultaneously, Wicked Will sounds like a full band playing together, firing on all cylinders. The elements that have carried over between Power and Wicked Will make me believe that educating a child raised by feral wolves  will only make him more of a danger.

The album opens with an folk-country slowburner, “Teeth,” which has earned a regular spot in my daily playlists all due to the too-good-not-to-be-classic line, “‘Cause everytime you smile / I can tell you’re just showin’ your teeth.” It’s the only the track to move at a slowed down, mournful pace and feature Lindsay “Coco” Hames’ thick, twanging acoustic guitar playing alongside her pitch-perfect blues-inflected voice. Once that’s done and over with, the Ettes turn on the power for a fierce stomp with some psych-punk touches in “Excuse.” And from there, there’s no turning back.

They’re not all fast and furious — “The Pendulum” is the most obvious connection to the Ettes’ previous record, as it slinks and moves to a rhythm almost sexy, and clearly meant to reflect the song’s namesake. “You Were There” has some of the slight psych touches, mostly in regard to the heavy reverb and echo tones that make Hames such an interesting guitarist given her peers in competition.

Actually, on that note, I’d like to take a moment to commend Lindsay Hames on having such a unique voice, and not being afraid to sing the sort of material that she does. When I bring up the Ettes in a conversation, most like to draw comparisons, most immediately, to the Vivian Girls. To make this long, drawn-out conversation short, they’re both terrific live acts, but when it comes to the matter of committing song to tape, the Ettes are lean, mean, and do not lend any of it to posturing — they are not a band to be messed with. Vivian Girls, meanwhile, are perfectly content with sounding like the quiet, shrinking violets that their songs sort of satirize. Are the Vivians too smart for their own good, or are they just so bored that they can’t find the urge to make their own work interesting? I digress, but it’s worth thinking about when considering how exciting, urgent, and insistingly classic the Ettes present their songs, and specifically, Coco retaining the country twang in her voice while she raves on.

The middle of the album is no filler graveyard either — as if they saved the best for the middle to make sure they keep your attention. From “You Never Say” to “I Stayed Too Late,” this stretch of songs is loaded with classic garage punk moments, full of stomping rhythms, soaring, fuzzy guitar shrieks, and wild guitar work (including some great slide fills in “Trouble With You”). Even “Don’t Bring Me Down” introduces some surf rock into the Ettes’ bag of tricks, and it’s makes them all the sexier.

The album is bookended with another country-based acoustic ballad that sounds straight out of the Raconteurs’ playbook. “The Worst There Is” is a dark, mournful tune, full of upright piano dirge and twinkling guitar twangs to back resigned lyrics of lost potential. It’s a strange way to end a record chock full of furious punk and gleeful stomp, but then again, it’s the Ettes’ world, and we’re just listening.

Grade: A-/B+. Wicked Will will probably go by an unnoticed gem for a lot of people, but it’s a record for people looking for some dangerous fun, and still, aren’t afraid of letting a little bit of sensitivity out. Everybody hurts after all. This is a fun, raucous record, and it shows a great deal of promise for the Ettes’ future, even while Wicked Will may not be as technically dazzling or complex as Do You Want Power was. Even then, it’s hard to ignore this as a collection of fantastic stompers, clappers, and slappers that will get you moving at all the right moments.

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