Album Review: The Coathangers – The Devil You Know

I first heard The Coathangers back in 2017 when an algorithm served me up the laid back bite of track ‘Perfume’; a perfectly formed fuzz-pop track. I bought the album Nosebleed Weekend and became a confirmed fan. The band formed in 2006 and have remained, at their core, Julia Kugel-Montoya (guitar, vocals) Meredith Franco (bass, vocals) and Stephanie Luke (drums, vocals).

The Devil You Know has the trio still railing against the pressures of modern life: greed, drugs, mental illness, violence against women and gun violence. This is an album full of what The Coathangers do exceptionally well; take the fuzz and raw energy of new wave and garage rock and add great tunes, riffs and solid drumming. They move from the pop joy of tracks like ‘5 Farms’ and ‘Stasher’ to the menace of ‘Crimson Telephone’ and ‘Hey Buddy’ to haunting arrangements on ‘Stranger Danger’ and ‘Last Call’.

When the first track ‘Bimbo’ opens I was taken aback by the sweet confection of the first minute full of ‘Aaaahs’ and breathy vocals and was concerned: had the band had gone for a softer sound? But in under a minute the power kicks in and we get the growling vocal line “I reached down way too low, and I guess that now I know, the world’s got other plans”.  This song seems to be using a knife to flay the skin off love to expose a nasty underside “I can’t be your moon and all your stars”. ‘5 Farms’ has a cracking guitar riff that has all the catchy feel of fellow Atlanta, Georgians the B-52’s. But this is no happy journey through Fifties’ kitsch this is Patriarchal greed held up to ridicule and the riff gives way to a blistering chorus of “You can’t take it with you (nobody gets out alive)”.

Crimson Telephone’ has a backbone of rolling drums and low bass and guitar and a chorus that should power a thousand mosh pits. ‘Hey Buddy’s driving bassline and spiky guitar underpins the snarling message which calls out all the men who think it’s okay to leer and hassle women “Hey buddy why you messing with me? Call me a faggot, call me a sleaze” and ends with the refrain “but it ain’t me, it’s only your fear”. It put me in mind of Deap Vally’s excellent man-shaming ‘Smile More’.

Step Back’ and ‘Slow Passage’ are the dark heart of this album with ‘Step Back’ a plea to anyone who finds life has become too much (“gotta numb yourself, so scared of life”). It’s an uncomfortable listen as it’s punctured throughout by a women’s scream and a drone keyboard sound that occasionally adds an urgent riff. ‘Slow passage’ opens with an off-centre guitar part that signals a nightmarish trawl through a perilous late night world filled with junkie strangers. But it’s a strong vocal line that lends the track its backbone and stares the danger in the eye without flinching.

After two such demanding songs we are rewarded by one of the standout tracks on the album ‘F the NRA’. This is not a forensic analysis of gun crime in America but a simple ‘slogan as message’ song about the power the NRA wields “ya keep talking freedoms, ya talking about rights, while you keep your eye on your bank accounts, attacking those lucky to survive”. But the sheer joy of this song is the repeated chorus “FUCK THE NRA”; definitely sing-a-long-Coathangers at every gig from now on.

Memories’ is a more out and out pop song and has echoes of the last album’s track ‘Squeeki Tiki’ with fast drums and a frenetic bassline. This is brimming with nervous energy that reminded me of Glasgow bands like Josef K and The Fire Engines. ‘Last Call’ is a bitter-sweet track that mixes slow tempo passages with an exploding power-chord chorus. ‘Stasher’ is the album’s last fuzztone-hurrah and digs at the buy-buy-buy consumer culture “cuz I’ve got everything, a little bit of everything, I’m a stasher. Or has it got me?”. ‘Lithium’ closes ‘The Devil You Know’ and is a dreamy low-key end to the album. Rather than go out on a high this feels like an arch way to go out, all their power sunk into the swamp of a drug fog (there’s also some clicking on the track that sounds like taking the cap off a pill bottle). Life doesn’t always go out on a power chord.

The Coathangers know how to move across moods and offer up light and shade by the bucket load. Guitars bubble up or crash through walls of bass and drums. Bass lines are tight and don’t just take the root notes but weave around the tracks giving melody as well as depth. Drums roll and move from toms to cymbals; they channel the power going to the songs and can bring V8 muscle or deploy a parachute to slow a song down. The Coathangers are an impressive band offering complex simplicity. They are 3, they are 1, they are awesome.

Review by Paul F Cook

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