True Womanhood have been around for about 9 months and their debut album, Basement Membranes, was released only a few days ago. Nevertheless, the band has made a name for itself, particularly locally, through regular gigs at some of DC’s most renown venues. With an impressive knowledge and appreciation of local indie/experimental music, they’ve managed to integrate themselves into the scene remarkably quickly. Moreover, although all 3 members of True Womanhood are only 23 years old, they’ve known each other since middle school and it shows in the comfort with which they blend influences and support each others’ crazy ideas. The chemistry is all there.
Of A-Side “The Monk”, percussionist Noam Elsner remarks, “this is a song we originally recorded for our demo and re-recorded for this release. It’s an interesting song for us because both times we recorded it it ended up changing drastically during the process. So you could say it’s been a really long song writing process, even though the main structure of the song hasn’t been touched since we first started playing.” The latest version was recorded at Death By Audio in DC and mixed with the help of J. Robbins. “When we got into J’s studio we realized he had all this amazing equipment like an awesome Charter Oak mike and some sweet plate reverbs that we put all over the song so we redid the vocals and put reverb and tape echo on a bunch of the sounds, we play this song with a timpani that has a piece of metal sitting on it, you could call it prepared timpani if you’re into Cage and that sort of thing, but it made the timpani sound all sorts of fucked up which was awesome and we tried to bring those sorts of weirder sounds out with the reverb plate.” Texturally, it’s fascinating. Although the skeleton of the song is fairly conventional, it’s fleshed out provocatively. The “weirder sounds” that Elsner speaks of give the song an ethereal quality which is haunting in places. Lush reverb on innumerable guitars is offset by violent crashes on the “prepared timpani.”
The band reasons, “this is kind of a funny song because it’s one of our most straightforward poppy songs which was why we wanted to temper some of that with some stranger sounds, so like the Phil Spector breakdowns in the chorus got that treatment and hopefully we reached a happy medium between pop and experimental.” That they certainly do. “The Monk” exhibits traces of pop, particularly in its structure and in the pre-chorus, where a catchy rising chord progression builds beneath falsetto laced vocals. “I’ll meet you halfway…“ But pop isn’t a word that would come to the minds to most listeners. “The Monk” is a lot more accessible than, to draw on the John Cage reference, 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, but honestly I’m quite thankful for that. It’s about as conventional as the kind of ‘pop’ put out by the likes of Radiohead or Bjork.
Actually, True Womanhood gets a lot of comparisons to Radiohead and also to Sonic Youth. While the basis for such comparisons is fairly obvious, the band is a little uncomfortable whenever they’re drawn. During an interview with DCist, guitarist/vocalist Thomas Redmond explained, “I feel that is just convenience. That’s all it is. What those two bands do is they mix crazy avant garde stuff with pop stuff. And let’s be honest, that’s what we’re trying to do… But I think what’s really important to us is the new music that’s coming out now. We’d be more comfortable with a No Age and Beach House comparison. Or HEALTH and Beach House. Or No Age and Slow Dive…“ It’s in moments like these that True Womanhood’s knowledge and appreciation of music really becomes obvious. Actually, they make it clear that they’re influenced by just about everything under the sun. Bassist Melissa Beattie points out, “we’ve listened to a lot of hip hop lately.” And sure enough, the band’s MySpace page ironically (or not?) states, “True Womanhood is the best rapper alive.” A full text of that interview can be found at here.
With regard to “The Monk,” Elsner concludes, “It’s also probably our happiest song, we don’t really do too much in happy moods so even when we do it still ends with the line ‘we tried and failed.’ make of that what you will.” Well, to me it’s not the ultimate but the penultimate line that haunts the most, “we eat our young.” Cheerful indeed.
Elsner describes B-Side “Shadow People” as an enigma. “It’s probably the oldest song that we still play and since day one it’s been a fan favourite. It’s been around since way before we even had a demo but it wasn’t on the demo, and we got all these people asking where it was.” But he modestly asserts that the only “solid parts” are the guitar riff and drum track. Beattie typically plays the drum track on the Vox Percussion King, a vintage drum machine that the band tells me has only ever been used on one other recording, Kraftwerk’s Autobahn. So True Womanhood has a lot to live up to. After all, Autobahn shattered barriers as one of the first commercially successful electronic music recordings. But Beattie’s use of the Vox Percussion King is actually a lot more interesting than Kraftwerk’s. A heavy guitar riff holds the song together, leaving the drums free to wander outside the lines. Thunderous crashes and hits free to fall at moments when they might not be expected. Also, as Elsner is quick to point out, “It’s got amazing sounds but it’s really old skool, you have to play all the sounds by hand with these weird paddle things.” Basically, it’s a spectacle.
The band explains that “for such a simple song, we’ve gone through a million ways of playing the song live, including the use of an electric guitar bowed with an acoustic, and also an installation we set up with a ton of organ pipes with mics fit inside which all ran into a mixer and some crazy effects.. So when we wanted to record there were so many options we sort of did not know the best way to fit them all together, and we went through many different variations before settling on this version. The recording features Thomas singing into some of the organ pipes and also I believe includes the use of every single Death by Audio pedal.” That’s right. “Shadow People” might be a simple song but texturally, it’s thick as fuck. This becomes especially apparent at the end of the song when the primary guitar riff and vocals dissolve, leaving a number of previously background sounds exposed. “Wait, what was I just listening to?” And live, the possibilities are basically endless. Elsner reflects, “the last time we played this song live it was an encore to some show we played in DC, and it turned into a crazy drum circle on stage with like half the audience and members of other bands all playing all the drums along with us, one of the coolest moments the band has been lucky enough to witness.”
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem061/01 The Monk.mp3
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem061/02 Shadow People.mp3