“Don’t let the world get you down.” An important but all too easy sentiment to forget within our complicated day-to-days, but one summed up quite heavenly and honestly by Cindy Lee Woland (alter ego of singer-songwriter Patrick Flegel, formerly of Women) late into the project’s new full-length, Act of Tenderness. It’s easily the most affecting, passionate and painful album to come out of Vancouver in ages.
The record has trafficked in small circles since the summer, having gone up for sale as a small run of test presses through local record retailer Horses Records. That early batch quickly sold out, but this Boxing Day, Flegel’s own CCQSK imprint delivers a 300 copy commercial run. The whole record is also being offered up as a free download on a simply-crafted and blocky Geocities web page. No matter which format you prefer, it’s an essential, often saddened listen.
Though somewhat similar in approach to Tatlashea, Cindy Lee’s 2012 cassette debut, Flegel has toned down a bit of the twisted and cacophonic, Sonic Youth-style six-string freak outs to refine the project’s more melancholy, minimalist aspects. Case in point, the opening title track sucks you in via a sublime chorus of ohms before ushering us into the positively devastating “Power and Possession.” A few solemn strums support the seemingly pitch-shifted and multi-layered vocals of Lady Woland, here demanding of a subject: “Don’t say another word, Don’t break my heart in two.”
Much of the album comes refracted through the lens of ’60 pop. Slivers of Lesley Gore’s freedom-seeking “You Don’t Own Me” liquefy alongside the blue-pill popping haze of the Velvet Underground on “Last Train’s Come and Gone,” a gentle, low-key piece with a “too much too late” theme threaded through its softly-sung lyrics. “I’ve grown weary of your face,” it’s offered through a robin’s coo. Clearly ready to depart, it’s added: “I’m a fool, but not for you. Can you hear me? Set me free!”
While often presented with the sparsest of arrangements, comparatively maximalist Act of Tenderness excursions land just as lonely. A psychedelic swirl of woodwinds course through “Fallen Angel,” which tugs at the hearts along with the rest of the tune’s Zombies-esque minor-key jangle and sky-soaring vibrato vocals. Most stunning is “In Wandering and Solitude,” a pitch-perfect mod-pop ballad loaded with supple backup harmonies and elegiac, symphonic string swiping.
On the flip, “New Romance” is a brilliant, exultant burst of distortion that temporarily obliterates even the most azure textures of the record. “Operation” flirts with decidedly icier, ’80s electro soundscapes. “Quit Doing Me Wrong” likewise flips the overall feel via its oddly-tuned guitar gymnastics, a run of guitar notes woozily stumbling out of the speakers on the record’s most Women-like moment. The feedback-and-shriek-heavy “Bonsai Garden” is the fully-loaded LP’s strangest, though no less compelling composition.
Whether caked in distortion or stripped down to what sounds like a bedroom demo from the loneliest figure in the world, Act of Tenderness is a treasure of a record. Kindly track it down now.
-review by Gregory Adams