The garage-punk revival of the early aughts, once alternately feted as a shot in the arm for rock music and disparaged as backward-looking retromania, is now old enough to warrant its own brand of nostalgia. And Atlanta’s Material Girls appear to be the right band at the right time, offering primitivist, reverb-drenched guitar riffs that sound like they could have come just as easily from 1966, 1977, or 2002. But the band’s debut album, Leather, doesn’t seem motivated by an affection for the past so much as an impulse to burn down rock n’ roll and rebuild it from the ashes.
There is, of course, much about our current times that would encourage such longing for rebirth through oblivion. The album’s opening track, “Residual Grimace,” is an anthem for a summer in hell: “Times never change, and I stay the same,” singer Ben Presley wails as the band lurches from a spindly Cramps-style riff into a squalling, horn-infused rave-up. On the slow-building “There She Goes,” bassist and co-lead vocalist Meghan Dowlen moans the title phrase in seemingly infinite variations of erotic anticipation and trembling unease. Leather isn’t an explicitly topical album, but like its forebears in the 1970s punk and post-punk movements, its sense of malaise and existential dread reflects the mood of a society seemingly on the verge of collapse.
Also like their musical antecedents, Material Girls inject some much-needed vitality into guitar-based rock. None of the ingredients on Leather are particularly original: The jagged groove of “Ya Ya” brings to mind the propulsive punk-funk of the Bush Tetras and the Contortions, while the furious noise and ranting Spanish-language vocals of “Dave’s Lament” recall the Pixies of “Vamos” and “Isla de Encanta.” Presley often sounds like he’s channeling the Cramps’s Lux Interior, while Dowlen’s voice at turns evokes Patti Smith, Exene Cervenka, and Siouxsie Sioux. But the sum of all these parts is invested with such raw power, it’s hard to care that we’ve heard it all before.
It helps, too, that the band’s punk energy comes packaged with equally punk concision: The album’s eight tracks clock in at under 30 minutes, a refreshing break from the overstuffed contemporary “playlist” album. Perhaps most refreshingly, Material Girls’s analog aesthetic extends to their public image, which is deliberately opaque, obscurantist, and social media-unfriendly. What few interviews they’ve given were conducted impersonally by email; their web presence, such as it is, is sparse and mysterious. They aren’t “retro” so much as they are out of time entirely. One gets the sense that if the music industry—or society at large—were to crash and burn, they’d feel right at home in the debris. That might make them the most forward-looking band of all.