In the bygone era of arena rock, concerts were a way of promoting records. Punk challenged that notion by making rock a communal experience again: the boundaries between performer and punter were blurred; anyone could start a band; and records were no longer the definitive statement of an artist’s vision, but rather a way of promoting visceral and participatory live shows. In their early years, Atlanta trio The Coathangers were very much of the classic punk ethos—the band was a live entity, and the records were merely a document of the charisma and chaos projected from stage. But after 12 years of relentlessly touring on a steady flow of EPs and LPs, The Coathangers finally took a moment to recalibrate before diving into the creation of their sixth studio album The Devil You Know.
After a summer break of reflection and reassessment, the band regrouped to make an album that captures all the vitality of their early years while honing their individual strengths into new communal achievements. It’s a record that takes their established takes on vitriolic punk, playful house-party anthems, and heartworn ballads and melds them into a new sound that retains all their former live show glories while revealing a new level of songwriting and nuance.
“The writing process was done with an open heart,” says guitarist/vocalist Julia Kugel. “Everything that came before had to go away. Whatever hang-up, whatever thing we were holding onto, it had to go away. And we started there, at ground zero.” This may sound like the band was going through some Hüsker Dü or Fleetwood Mac-level personal drama, but the reality is less gritty and salacious. The individual members had merely become entrenched in their way of doing things. Kugel excelled at the melodic pop songs. Drummer/vocalist Stephanie Luke belted out the gritty rock tunes. Bassist/vocalist Meredith Franco drove the post-punk and no-wave angles of the band. With each album, you could hear the individual songwriters honing their style. But with The Devil You Know, it feels like we’re hearing the first Coathangers record written as a true unit. Inspired and emboldened by their experience recording Nosebleed Weekend, the band returned to Valentine Recording Studios in Laurel Canyon with Nic Jodoin, who pushed them into increasingly layered and lush sonic territories.
There’s no better demonstration of this reconfigured sound than in the opening track “Bimbo”, where Kugel’s signature sweetness propels the verses while Luke’s shout-along hooks and hammer-fisted drumming dominates the chorus. It’s a pop masterpiece that touches on all the classic Coathanger traits, but delivers them all at once in a fully realised way. “I don’t care what our previous image was. That’s not us now,” Kugel says. “I feel like this is an introduction to what we are now.” And that current manifestation ofThe Coathangers finds the individual voices banding together, as on the throbbing rocker“Crimson Telephone”. There’s a hint of The Pixies’ duality of seduction and fury in this critique of social media’s grip on our lives, a suitable reflection of both the allure and the frustration of this new cultural phenomenon. That beauty-and the-beast dynamic comes into play again on “Step Back”, a siren song of staccato riffs, bass grooves, shrieking noise, and beguiling vocal melodies. When the band taps into their particular brand of angular skronk on “Memories”, there’s a masterful interplay that recalls famously tight-knit trios like This Heat and Minutemen. Even at their fiercest moments, such as on fiery “F the NRA”, the band never descend to the cacophony they cranked out in their early years. “It’s a conscious anger now,” Kugel says of their harnessed fury. “You’re navigating through it and figuring out your place in all of it, whereas the first record is more of a general statement of ‘I feel mad.’” There’s a newfound discipline, depth, and dimension toThe Coathangers on The Devil You Know, like each member learned how to imbue their bandmates’ songs with their own personal touch.
The album title stems from an old adage whispered at a friend’s wedding. We settle when we’re afraid of the unknown. It’s a theme that runs through every song on the album, and even though the band insists they were writing songs about other peoples’ pain, they acknowledge that the old saying applies to their band as well. We get comfortable, we get scared, and we refuse to change. But with The Devil You Know, The Coathangers lost their fear, and that allowed them to shed the baggage of the past. “Why are we living in these cells we built for ourselves?” Kugel asks. “That’s been the great thing about this record. It’s been honest and confrontational… but not in a shitty way.”