Setting the bar low (and leaping) — TheWorst drops trashy, exhilarating 'Jane Doe Embryo'

It’s no slight to the three musicians of Portland rock band TheWorst, each totally capable and believably spirited with decades-long CVs making independent music, but we live in an era where stripped-down, mid-tempo fuzzed-out grungepunk holds very little purchase. (The name they’ve chosen suggests they understand this.) In 2017, it's a musical style as poached-in-history as Sinatra standards were when these musicians were young. Honestly, this makes their debut even more interesting.

Whatever kind of music you profess to enjoy, the reason to check in on this raw, sonically charged band is nearly entirely Brooke Binion, the singer, songwriter, and guitarist behind TheWorst's ninesong, 29-minute debut album Jane Doe Embryo. Odds are she'll recall the fierce frontpersons of your own high school CD towers or college dorm posters, but Binion is no copycat. She pours her heart out through this album of trashy, uncomplicated rock songs. It's a rickety old vehicle, but she sure as hell knows how to drive it.

Music like this is naturally associated with adolescence. But a significant reason for that is because young people haven't been hardened into work-aday stiffs, lost the ability to express themselves or be vulnerable, or relinquished the instinct to put themselves in risky and exciting situations. With Binion steering these songs, every moment of Jane Doe Embryo feels alive, in a way that can and should remind people of adolescence. And while that can at times feel constricted by a music that can feel, by this point in history, quite dead and lacking in new ideas, her vivacity is only sharper in its relief.

Binion screams, hollers, croons, shrieks, and shreds her way through these angsty, confessional, emotionally charged songs. Lyrically, she squares off against depression and drug addiction, gender injustice and political fatigue, while somehow, through some artfully managed affect, shielding her audience from shouldering the weight of her stories. It may scream adolescence, but Binion’s a full-grown adult with years of experience and reflection, and that makes an enormous difference.

Probably wisely, TheWorst resist playing anything super fast or slow. There are no d-beat burners, no ballads, but there are surprises. "Backwash," an album single of sorts, leverages harmonic guitar notes and feedback into a weirdly catchy vocal melody and lumbering-heavy chorus. "Vices" starts off in a deep fuzz before stumbling its way into a serious melodic pay-off. Here and elsewhere, we hear Binion spinning fraught, vulnerable lines into memorable anthems and sing-along lyrics, a sort of recurring personal catharsis that's unmistakably fuel for the whole ride.

I'm making this sound like it's a hard listen. It's not. The song "Like Vaseline" is a well-penned, smartly melodic rock song. Like most of Jane Doe Embryo, it's hard around the edges, but the vocals are catchy and high in the mix, as Boston engineer Will Holland (Pixies, Rhett Butler, Fall Out Boy) smartly recognizes that she'll hold his brightest lights. And it's a full performance. Her guitar work is equally good impressive. Envision a slightly more jaded Weakened Friends. Or a less jaded L7.

Every time Jane Doe feels like it's dragging, largely due to minimal variation in the songs' tempos, Holland captures some noteworthy idiosyncrasy of Binion's and we're back. "Suburb Schizophrenia" would suffer from the cookie-cutter chord progression of its verses, but its atypical chorus restores interest, prodded along by Brooke's off-kilter, intuitive phrasing toward the end. The rhythm section ending standout "Vices" bounces along like a sort of bar-rock track even as Binion's post-lyrical guitar shredding, like something outta Screaming Females, tears holes through the song's fabric.

I don't know how this translates outside of the studio, where sonic trickery is harder to pull off in real time. But put aside trends and infatuations with genre, and a rock 'n' roll performance is little more than a display of someone showing up live. In that case, Binion's the one to do it.

TheWorst | Jane Doe Embryo album release | with The Silks + Cape Cannons + Lyokha | Friday, Oct 20, 8 pm | Empire, 575 Congress St., Portland | $8 | 

Last modified onWednesday, 18 October 2017 07:30