“I consider myself part of the Torah,” Maurice Schmidt says in a lovely short documentary on his life, Majesty and Tenderness: The Art of Maurice Schmidt. A painter from rural Texas, Schmidt’s work is bright and vivid and slightly surreal. Faces become blurred but landscapes become vivid, with plants and sky entangling themselves into the everyday lives of people to the point where they find themselves inextricably connected. It’s hard for Schmidt to get across what he means when he says he’s part of the Torah, but largely it’s a feeling of connection to time, place, and history.
Similar feelings sprout up for me listening to Wednesday’s newest album, Rat Saw God. Like Schmidt, lead singer Karly Hartzman—who’s Jewish on her father’s side, per this Stereogum interview—is a Southern (North Carolina) artist interested in finding the beautiful in the mundane. Unlike Schmidt’s peaceful paintings, however, Wednesday’s reckoning with the world is best listened to at high volume.
One of Wednesday’s few references to Judaism comes on one of the smaller songs, soundwise. “Quarry” does not feature a cacophony of swirling guitars, but rather paints a mosaic of small-town life. An old lady complains that America’s become a spoiled child as she hands out candy on Halloween. Two brothers get lice and their parents fight in their underwear for the whole neighborhood to see. And “the kid from the Jewish family got the preacher’s kid pregnant / they sent her off and we never heard too much more about it.”
That little story, which Hartzman says in the Stereogum interview is based on her father’s experience, is filled with irony and mystery. These types of life-changing dramas happen everyday, and there’s not too much anyone can do about them. Except for scream, of course.
On Rat Saw God, life, death, and the mundane mix until it’s hard to tell the difference. “I got shocked ‘cause the room was on two different circuits / First I felt the thunder then blacked out at band practice,” she sings at the beginning of “Got Shocked.” Race car drivers die on TV, crickets jump on fridges, legs hold people up like machine guns.
On the album’s standout track, “Chosen to Deserve,” Hartzman warns that “We always started by tellin’ all our best stories first / So now that it’s been awhile, I’ll get around / To tellin’ you all my worst.” She sings of addiction in vivid color: She used to drink until she’d throw up while her friends would take Benadryl “‘til they could see shit crawlin’ up the walls.” She saw people almost die, taught at Sunday school, and pissed in the street. Presenting herself to a lover with biting sarcasm, she says “I’m the girl you were chosen to deserve” over and over again until she convinces herself it’s real.
Rat Saw God elevates the everyday with Hartzman’s signature wail, which gets louder and louder until it presents itself as something that can’t be ignored. The guitars thrash and create a soundscape that’s not quite brutal, but loud in a way that indie rock from North Carolina from the ’90s was, when bands like Polvo and Archers of Loaf were creating intricate and passionate masterpieces.
Back in 1992, Spin went to North Carolina to check out the flourishing local music scene. A singer asks the reporter at a raucous party/concert if he thinks there’s such a thing as a “Chapel Hill sound,” referencing the college town that’s home to the main campus of the University of North Carolina. Before the reporter can respond, a passerby wanders into their conversation and promises to reveal the real Chapel Hill sound. He draws both of them in closer, and then he opens a beer can in their faces.
Rat Saw God is a little like that. It’s loud, it’s a party, alcohol is everywhere, and the truth is both right in front of you and nowhere to be found at all. Sounds a lot like a Jewish album to me.
David Meir Grossman is a writer living in Brooklyn. His Twitter feed is @davidgross_man.