Chances are that Water On Mars, the fourth Purling Hiss LP, will face a lukewarm reception in some quarters, chiefly their longest-standing fans.
This, for the simple reason that they now dare to try a little tenderness in between the primally oily cavemanic rockouts, rather than just hammering away with everything deep into the red, as tended to be their default mode on their earlier albums. (Hear for yourself if you like.) Some folks just like their ears to bleed, and many of them are also leery of things which jangle and have easily telegraphed choruses and – break out the nit medicine – might be pigeonholed as indie rock, you know like what people younger and happier and less bitter than you listen to.
Of Water On Mars’ nine songs, perhaps two-thirds risk such categorisation. ‘Rat Race’, in spite of a gnarly, detuned bassline and the repeated complaint, “everybody’s steppin’ on my shoes,” is ineffably sunny alt.fodder of an early-Nineties vintage – part Archers of Loaf, part pre-wuss Teenage Fanclub. ‘She Calms Me Down’ (and how!) is a romantic, loping, chiming pop song, in which frontman Mike Polizze’s voice takes on a peculiar Anglicised twang. While doubting that any of the Philadelphia band have ever listened to it, I’m reminded of the melancholy parts of Blur’s Modern Life Is Rubbish here.
And if that wasn’t enough to get PH linking this review on their Facebook page and selectively quoting a couple of sentences, thus enabling their fanbase to point out that everyone who writes record reviews is a moron and surplus to modern requirements, let me also flag up how much ‘The Harrowing Wind’ sounds like Weezer. Pinkerton-era, I guess, and less clean still in the guitar department, but even before the “woo-ooh” refrain takes hold, Purling Hiss’ bubblegum content has never been higher. ‘Mary Bumble Bee’, which concludes the album, is the kind of countrified archness that Drag City might have released in any year since the first Silver Jews single.
All of which serves to make the explicitly hard rock moments seem all the hairier. Even though it turns out that Purling Hiss are really pretty great at writing chipper indie jigalongs, Water On Mars opening number ‘Lolita’ is also its crowning glory. The ether-soaked channelling of Blue Cheer and Hendrix that lit up the early PH joints (when it was a Polizze solo project, conceived during downtime between his other band, the absurdly OTT distort-rock blowout Birds Of Maya) returns here with a vengeance, a wah pedal chomping at the studio air and the vocalist bellowing “LOLITA COME BACK TO ME” like a dollar-bin deviant chased back to 1973 by an angry neighbourhood mob. The only comparable moment of blare on here is the title track, a seven-minute jam that remains instrumental for five minutes and goes almost nowhere thereafter – although Purling Hiss’ stasis eclipses many spacier heads’ attempts to transport the listener.
I suspect it would be forcing a point to suggest this album was penned and crafted with actual commercial success in mind, yet the shifted priorities displayed during most of its 33-minute duration open up new (hypothetical) avenues. It happens to come out within a few weeks of new albums by The Men and Milk Music – both bands who forged identities in a steadfastly DIY punk culture, but never shook their passion for the good end of grunge and beardy crypto-country stuff, and seem to be doing pretty well for themselves as a result. Which, on the evidence of Water On Mars, isn’t far off describing Purling Hiss. Their next release might be a whole ‘nother curveball, but this is a treat on its own terms.
8Noel Gardner's Score