The ingredients are almost in place for Dream Wife to become something great someday. The Brighton, U.K.-originated trio are clearly lovers of some of the best female-empowering garage punk of all time, and they’ve absorbed much of what makes that music great. Like one of their heroes, the incomparable Karen O, they have an art school background that can help sand down punk’s roughest edges in just the right way. On this debut full-length, there’s are some moments of lyrical brilliance where they wax profound in the direct, concise manner punk demands. And, boosted most prominently by guitarist Alice Go, they can certainly rock.
Looking over the totality of this album, though, something’s missing. Maybe a couple of things, but most prominently, what’s missing is a consistent command of anything resembling melody. As noisy as punk and garage can get, their best practitioners understand you don’t have much of a song without … a song. Dream Wife largely punts on melody here, with vocalist Rakel Mjöll staying mostly in the talky, chanty, and occasionally screamy parts of the spectrum. Mjöll’s voice is full of attitude and isn’t a problem, but the dearth of melody is; at the record’s worst moments, it makes them sound like another run-of-the-mill, copycat punk band.
There’s some high-quality stuff here, though, and more than a little. Start with “Somebody,” the album’s second track and, in the topical context of early 2018, its most impressive statement. Mjöll takes on sexual assault and female objectification in a resonant way, with the verses mockingly airing the insensitive rationalizations often aimed at someone who fell victim to harassment or assault: “You were a cute girl standing backstage/It was bound to happen … What you wore and how you bore it so well/What did you expect would happen?” With the chorus’ ultimate declaration of “I’m not my body/I’m somebody,” Mjöll needs just those five clipped words to deliver a powerful truth.
And then there’s Go’s guitar work. She kills it on the majority of the songs here, laying down urgent, gritty lines beneath the likes of “Fire” and standout rocker “Hey Heartbreaker,” deploying a tone that’s distorted but far from sludgy.
The lyrics are hit and miss, diving into love, sex, and emotions with highly varying degrees of depth. Rarely are they truly bad, but equally rarely do they approach the insight or impact of “Somebody.” Despite a title that might promise lyrical depth, “Love Without Reason” is a thin power ballad without much to say. “Kids,” the more uptempo companion song that follows it, is more coherent and replayable, airing that desire to feel things as strongly as you did when you were young. “Act My Age” builds promisingly to a squealy chorus couplet that could lay a promising foundation for more – “Do I amuse you?/Do I confuse you?” Instead, that’s the only place it goes from there – those two repeated lines are the whole chorus. “Taste” has little lyrical heft beyond basic feelings of sexual longing, but Go saves the day on that one (and probably others) by shredding once again.
Although it doesn’t sink the album, the lack of memorable tunes is even more hindering. Dream Wife seems to be attempting to compensate for that with an affinity for vocal harmonies (the “hey-hey-heys” that underpin the pre-chorus of “Hey Heartbreaker,” for example, or the straight-up harmonies of “Kids.”) But it’s often not enough. Reaching the level of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs means keeping melody in mind and maybe even occasionally writing a truly pretty number like “Maps” or “Despair.” On the YYYs’ debut album, the majesty and thoughtfulness of “Maps” jumped out at you amidst all those sweaty rockers; there’s nothing remotely like that here.
And yet, sort of going against everything I just wrote is the album’s strong finale, “F.U.U,” because it doubles down on what Dream Wife already does well. Here, the band embraces its primitive, unmelodic instincts and, at the same time, throw everything it’s got at you, like the big finish in a fireworks show. “I’m gonna f*** you up, gonna cut you up, gonna f*** you up,” spits Mjöll in a way that manages to be both amusing and threatening, kind of like Azealia Banks in “212.” The band rips through this vicious piece of catharsis and then gives you a new, grand wrinkle: A rapped verse by Iceland’s Fever Dream. And damned if it doesn’t work way, way better than that unfortunate time the Yeah Yeah Yeahs tried to throw a guest rap into their mix.
After starting out rapping her verse in Icelandic, Fever Dream turns to praising her hosts and seemingly predicting their spectacular recorded future: “I spy with my little eye bad bitches/Dream Wife for life.” She’s right – it’s clear Dream Wife are already the right kind of bad. But they have room to be even badder.
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Best tracks: “Somebody,” “Hey Heartbreaker,” “F.U.U”