There are unwritten rules for girl bands. One of them is that if you are to be taken seriously, you must play seriously and play down your gender as well—there’s a polarity between musicianliness and girliness. Some women abide by it, others twist themselves to work around it, others reject it outright; most all bear the psychic weight regardless. But the Atlanta quartet the Coathangers aren’t so much fuck-the-rules as they are wholly heedless of them—and they cackle at us for expecting anything otherwise.
The band’s third album, Larceny and Old Lace (Suicide Squeeze), is an aggressive, playful, girly shambles. It’d be easy to think that the band’s ideas are merely visceral or instinctual, that Larceny sputters with beginners’ spirit. But repeated listens make it obvious that the Coathangers are conscious of what they are rejecting. These girls came of age in the pop eon of Britney (a Disney-dreamed singing and dancing virgin slut doll crafted for maximum appeal), American Idol (where quotidian pretty voices were the norm), and indie girls getting over on well-considered pairings of naïveté and cuteness. In response, they offer up lewd jokes and invitations to come “nestle” in their “boobies,” all sung in voices that could easily cause a headache with prolonged exposure. These are smart girls thrilling themselves with how bad they can be.
Though there is really only one acceptable archetype for the “bad girl” in rock ‘n’ roll, and it begins and ends with Joan Jett (Courtney Love is another, though she doesn’t usually get filed under “acceptable”), the Coathangers present us with another option: The obstinate girl who doesn’t give a shit about anything but her good time, though she’s delighted that you think she’s a little scary. The heinous brat whine possessed by two of the band’s three singers—guitarist Crook Kid Coathanger and bassist Minnie Coathanger—is the singsong of the tattle tale, nasal, sharp, and relentless, the unmistakable voice of the antiheroine in a florid musical who’s definitely gonna do something bad to get back at you.
Larceny and Old Lace is rich in un-love songs—they sing of love that’s free of sticky romance (“I like it when you stray/’Cause I don’t want you everyday/Hey, I like you/Go away” they sing on “Go Away”), and sometimes a little stalky (“Call to Nothing,” “Trailer Park Boneyard”). “My Baby” comes on as innocently as any Taylor Swiftian pledge of eternal fealty (“I like to watch you while you sleep/While you’re standing close, I find it even hard to breathe”) before veering toward creepy adoration (“I comb my hair the way you do to be closer to you/My baby”) and then careening into a grotesquerie, one that reveals how underneath those hopeful, doe-eyed teengirl sentiments lurks a desperate girl who can’t live without someone else.
As refreshing as the band’s rejection of feminine ideals is, the thing that makes them really worth listening to is the fact that, despite being tagged as garage/post-punk/grrrl-somethings, they aren’t reviving anything. They are a nothing-fancy good-time band—you know, like some local living-room-only geniuses whose “Louie Louie” variations, brimming with single entendres and pockmarked by hilarious banter, feel like God’s true pleasure message when you are just drunk enough. Those bands are usually cover bands or season-long side projects, not make-a-record, buy-a-van type bands—but the Coathangers have lofted that sound from its low station and made a summer fun record that preserves the perfect crash of wasted youth.
Righteous dilettantes, the Coathangers’ songs are simple and jarring—they’re irreverent towards melody and their hooks jut at odd angles. They favor single-string runs and maxing out at two and three chords. Their solos do not blaze; they go neener-neener-neener-neener, and therein lies the liberation. The Coathangers’ abject rejection of finesse or the idea that you must—as they say in bandmate-wanted ads—”have pro gear and pro attitude” is what ultimately thrills. They are giving glory to the amateur.