Wednesday’s ‘Rat Saw God’ Is One Of Early 2023’s Best Indie Albums

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The most significant change in media and the arts in the past 20 years has been the rise of the internet and social media. Everybody knows this. But what’s overlooked is the second most significant change, which is a direct byproduct of the first: The end of regionalism.

If you’ll allow me a brief self-indulgent tangent: I started my career in media in 2000. I was hired as a general assignment features reporter by my hometown newspaper in Wisconsin, and my plan was to one day work as a columnist for a daily in a mid-sized Middle American market, like Minneapolis or Louisville. That path seemed viable 23 years ago. But it did not happen. Within a few years, I realized — like Tony Soprano with the mafia — that I came in at the end. Regional media was collapsing, and I was trapped inside. Six years later I took a job as a city editor for an alt-weekly for roughly 25 percent less pay, but that paper eventually folded.

Luckily, I was able to escape. But part of me mourns what was lost. Once, I knew the people I was writing for. We walked the same streets, ate at the same restaurants, and bought toilet paper at the same convenience stores. Now the only thing I share with readers is close proximity to electronic devices.

Basically, the same thing happened to indie rock. In the ’80s and ’90s, indie music was associated with places like Minneapolis, Seattle, and Athens, Ga. The bands that came from those cities had a local character that felt distinct from the rest of the country. The Replacements and R.E.M. might have made the same kind of music in a broad sense, but their respective Midwestern and Southern sensibilities provided specific textures that ultimately defined who they were.

That sort of thing doesn’t happen as much anymore now that we are all stuck in the same digital bucket. Does it matter where Big Thief or Alvvays or Japanese Breakfast hail from? Like the rest of us plugged into the matrix, they come from nowhere and everywhere simultaneously. I don’t mean this as a criticism, as this “nowhere and everywhere” feeling is bigger than just music. The URL takeover of IRL is all-encompassing and unavoidable.

I thought about all of this while listening to the excellent new Wednesday album, Rat Saw God, out on Friday, because it cuts against the grain of everything I just wrote. Of its many attributes, what stands out to me the most is how regional it feels. This is the first record I have heard in a long time that feels like it came from somewhere. That somewhere would be Asheville, North Carolina, a palatial community with bountiful trees and fresh mountain air and loads of regional eccentricity. I visited a dozen years ago, and briefly conspired to land a job at the local newspaper so I could move there. (I wonder if that paper is still in business.) Listening to Rat Saw God felt like going back.

On the previous Wednesday LP, 2021’s Twin Plagues, singer-songwriter Karly Hartzman wrote evocative story songs set in what I like to call the Gummo South, a partly real and partly made-up region in which dead dogs and burned-down Dairy Queens dot the landscape like Starbucks crowd street corners in big cities. But on Rat Saw God, her songwriting exhibits a level of detail that is practically physical. The title alone of the opening track, “Hot Rotten Grass Smell,” filled my nostrils with the aroma of a humid late July day. (Wisconsin — in the summer at least — is similar to North Carolina in a lot of ways.)

Tapping into that kind of visceral sense memory grants instant authenticity to the world that Hartzman creates on this record. The nail salons with the lights turned off, the sex shops off the highway with biblical names, the rundown houses with cocaine and guns hidden in the walls — you see, smell, feel, hear, and taste them all. Even the parts of Rat Saw God that evince full-on Harmony Korine-style surrealism have the intensely visual feel of fractured memories, like the kid in “Bath County” who sips on “piss colored bright yellow Fanta” and talks about someone who died in a Planet Fitness parking lot. Or the truck in “Formula One” that was too tall for the overpass and got its top ripped off. Or the many tales of misspent youth described in “Chosen To Deserve,” the spiritual center of the record.

I should note that in musical terms this band sounds like it was produced in a lab by scientists who were determined to cater to a person with my tastes. Do you also love Southern Rock Opera, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, and Siamese Dream so much that you wish you could listen to all three albums at the same time? Are you thrilled by the prospect of pedal steel guitar put through a distortion pedal? Are you intrigued by the premise of a band that’s so good it doesn’t need MJ Lenderman to contribute any songs? Shouldn’t more country tunes be eight and a half minutes long and conclude with a woman screaming about Mortal Kombat? This record answers every question in the affirmative, as would I.

Hartzman has said that she wrote the lyrics to the concluding track, “TV In The Gas Pump,” in a phone note while on tour. The song’s banal imagery — “people standin’ with their arms crossed / in the line at the Panera Bread” — belies the comic/horrific vérité tone that pervades the rest of Rat Saw God. In Hartzman’s songs, dread and joy freely commingle, as they do in life. But above all there is a sense of wonderment that a world so terrible and wonderful exists at all. America is still a big, strange place if you allow yourself to touch grass (rotten or not) every now and then. Wednesday draws you into their own unique milieu on Rat Saw God, and I am grateful for their hospitality.