In an apparent tribute to GBV's "Propeller"...I first encountered The Splinters in February of this year, when they put up a bare-bones MySpace as their introduction to the world. I believe they had three songs, and a short list of influences that included The Shaggs. For show or serious? I pondered. Sure, I'm friends with people that listen to bands like The Shaggs for pleasure (I'm one of them), but it's one thing to cite a radically defiant, somewhat revolutionary, and often tuneless band as an "influence" and quite another for the claim to be supported by your music. The track "Splintered Bridges" answered my question.
Tape hiss, an almost Native-American drum beat and three nasal female voices singing in unity over a chugging garage riff (played on acoustic, naturally) made for one of the more unique statements of purpose I've heard from a band in a while. And yeah, it kind of sounded like The Shaggs after a couple more timekeeping lessons. The melody was half 60s soul, half playground chant: "I don't want you to go awaaaay and I don't want you to stay." Like a playground rhyme, it was instantly memorable, and like a classic recording, it just seemed like one of those songs that should have been written all along, unpretentious and unaffected; people making music because they like to do so.
Since then, the band mushroomed into an important part of the Bay Area scene, and for once, it was well deserved. Adding drummer Courtney Gray, they could deliver incendiary, clipped performances broken up by nervous humor. The band swiftly moved from being an alien four-track project to a real rock band. Some bands can't survive the transition without becoming boring or conforming to indie/rock/indie-rock cliches, but they only got better.
The debut EP in question, then, is a testament to the promise the band continues to show without completely tipping their hand. Recorded in digital in a co-operative house bedroom studio, the record doesn't quite capture the rough-and-ready garage punk of the live act, to the disappointment of some but to the benefit of neophytes that don't collect scratchy 7"s.
Nights on the Bay Area garage circuit have done the group well: there's no question that they're a cohesive unit. The contrast of Ashley Thomas' chugging rhythm guitar against Caroline Patramian's single-note leads echos underground guitar duos like The Cramps' King Congo Powers and Poison Ivy Rorsharch, or even The Fall's Craig Scanlon and Brix Smith. Courtney Gray and Lauren Stern, drums and percussion, respectively, are the band's secret weapon, laying down a solid rhythmic foundation that often recalls Motown's one-two snap beats and allows the group to still groove sans bass guitar.
"Splintered Bridges" leads the set in a revamped surf-punk version, coming off as less homegrown this time so much as moshworthy; ironically, this one usually closes sets. The equally brash "Ch-Ch-Ch-CHA" and "Oranges," then, flesh out the Splinters' unspoken manifesto. "Ch-Ch-Ch-CHA," using its title's onomotapea as the chorus' hook, describes an all-out girl gang brawl in a park, culminating with a repeated screech of "They thought we stole their friends/They thought we stole their friends/They thought we stole their friends/They thought we stole their friends/Yeah, right." The sexual politics behind the fuck-and-fight lyrics of "Oranges" are too much for me to analyze uninformed, suffice to say they endow the song with a deliberate, even comical, nastiness, with lines like: "That's how she did it/She got in my pants/And I hate her for it/Why won't she just fuck off" and "I grabbed at her crotch/I tried to hurt her badly/But instead it got her off."
A lot of what makes these songs so significant is the redefinition of the "I" within the world of the Splinters: When they sing "Let me tell you" or "I had to do a double take, 'cause she was with a man," all three "lead singers" blurt the lines, making for a collective-first person: an all-for-one, one-for-all mob mentality, the same as when The Damned used to shout "I'm gonna stab your back" in unison, or when the Raincoats would desperately ask, "Is it love when I see your face in the rails?" By virtue of the ensemble vocal, in that moment those groups speak for you and me and everyman/everywoman, letting us into their gang and into their headspace for the fleeting moment a pop song can provide - to share their trevails, fears, suspicions, and/or every other nasty emotion that makes pop worth listening to.
"Electricity" is the newest number on the set, and probably the best suited to the cold, clear production style of the EP: a haunting, ghostly number that finds the band exploring their post-punk influences as well. It's their most radically different number thus far, and in the running for their best, melodically sophisticated and brimming with tension. "Sea Salt Skin" provides the set's hangover; as if the clinically depressed cousin to "Splintered Bridges," the song also depicts a deteriorating relationship but with increased resignation and desolation. The Lauren Stern-led "Worry," often used by the band for the audience to cool their jets mid-show, concludes the EP with a more traditional-sounding lament against an skeletal acoustic backing. While not recorded on four-track, the tune is the EP's tie-in to their tape-hiss beginnings, a lilting ditty tracked quickly with minimal instrumentation.
Even at 6 songs, the EP is a bit scattered in direction, if only because the group seems to have too many ideas to fully cauterize their sound yet - which is a good thing. The set does not encapsulate the "essence" of the band, but as a first salvo, it's particularly effective, featuring unusually strong songwriting and a band full of chutzpah (as opposed to the other thing bands are usually full of). And basically, you'd be a fucking idiot not to pay attention to what this band does next - their live performances alone position them as successors to bands like The Raincoats or the Slits (see "Boston Buys" for how I feel about them).