Punk doesn’t usually present itself as headphones music. With some exception, it’s not a producer’s genre. Punk gives short shrift to polish and studio trickery. For many punk bands, the record isn’t the document. The gig is the thing. What matters is the band’s immediate, sweaty connection to the crowd.
Meredith Graves’ voice made me grab my headphones. As the front woman for Syracuse-based quartet Perfect Pussy, her contributions to her band’s 22-minute debut album necessitate cupping my headphones to pull her words closer to my ears. Graves trades in stream-of-conscious monologues that weave between the wonder, loneliness, and anger of being a hopeful, yet very uncertain twentysomething. With good reason, many critics are already quoting passages from “Interference Fits” (which features the rhetorical question from which the album gets its title) and “Dig” (“I want to fuck myself/and I want to eat myself”). The album begins with a representative line (my favorite) “Watch me, I’m kicking the wall/I’ll break through it before I go/and leave a hole my shape in everything I know.” These are important, meaningful words from a young, conflicted woman. But I had to strain to hear them.
On record, Graves’ voice registers just enough above the din of drummer Garrett Koloski’s thunderous percussion, the scrape of Ray McAndrew’s guitar, the persistent drone of Shaun Sutkus’ pile of synthesizers, and Greg Ambler’s scorched earth bass playing. The album never wavers in its energy or intensity, but I’m particularly partial to the run of songs in the middle of Say Yes (“Big Stars” through “Dig”), where the band is tightest and most focused.
During their SXSW showcase for NPR, a mosh pit opened up because of course. But as I tried to protect myself from flying skateboard wheels and the weight of predominantly male bodies, I struggled to hear Graves. Soundboard issues aside, the presence absence of Graves’ voice was compelling. At the center of this chaos was a small woman calling attention to her physical commitment as a musician—her steady stream of urgent words, her emphatic phrasing, her shifting rhythms, her flailing gestures, her neck muscles—but it almost didn’t register. And I wanted very much to hear her.
Requiring this level of effort on the listener’s part speaks to why the group has captured such fervent critical interest. At the risk of reducing Graves to her gender, a female-fronted punk band is still too much of a novelty for my liking. Much of this album is consumed with ambivalence around romance, sex, friend groups, and gendered expectations of personal fulfillment; struggling to hear the woman pontificating about these subjects adds another deceptively thin layer of interpretation. But the band does compelling things with that novelty, which suggests that musicianship makes identity and subjectivity into political issues and not the other way around. Hold your headphones close.