Early this year, in my write-up of the best albums of 2021, I wrote this about young hyperpop artists like Banoffee and Charli XCX, who are making some of my favorite sounds lately: “I’m a 51-year-old dad and house DJ and this music is not made for me; the target audience is decades younger, not to mention overwhelmingly women and LGBT.” A friend replied, “You write a lot about music not made for you. Maybe it is made for you!” That was such a lovely thought, and I think he was onto something. So I’m going to approach this review of Wet Leg’s debut LP in that spirit.
As young and hip and of the moment as Wet Leg are, they absolutely make music for me. They absolutely make music for a 51-year-old who’s always loved good-time rock and roll: who was weaned on Joan Jett and Blondie and the Cars on the radio as a kid; whose life was changed by the Bangles’ garage rock at the age of 16; and, under their influence, found the joys of the Beatles and the Ramones and the Velvet Underground and Patti Smith; who was fascinated by vintage clips of T. Rex and Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust era on MTV in the late 80s; who discovered the Modern Lovers and the MC5 and Iggy Pop in college alongside Mudhoney and the Pixies and the Stone Roses; and who (as I wrote in my last post) regained a life-affirming love of rock in the millennial era thanks to the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the White Stripes.
I don’t know if it’s because I’m old or the mood I’ve been in lately, but Wet Leg feel very much like they’re on a continuum with all those artists — in other words with the grand tradition that is rock and roll. I mean that in the most expansive sense, including everyone from Bo Diddley to the Ronettes to Amy Winehouse; but what I also mean is this: this music should be fun. It should be raunchy, it should be party music, it should make your body move. It should be joyous and liberating — as joyous and liberating as this Wet Leg performance at Glastonbury earlier this year:
Wet Leg is hands down the best album of 2022. It’s doing the same thing that Dry Cleaning’s debut LP New Long Leg did for me last year: it’s giving me so much life and energy and hope for the future of music. It’s lifting my spirits and making my day on a regular basis.
Wet Leg are usually described as indie rock or indie pop (Billboard described them as the “latest indie rock saviors”), and sometimes as postpunk — part of the triumphant new wave of postpunk that also includes Dry Cleaning, Parquet Courts and Yard Act. And that’s fine, I use those terms myself; it’s an easy shorthand description of the sound. But I wonder: why not also recognize that they are rock and roll? Why do we call it “indie rock” anyway, what’s the need for that distancing?
Instead of focusing on the various ruptures in rock history, like punk or postpunk or post-rock, lately I’ve been of a mind to see the long threads connecting Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Stooges and the B-52s and the Linda Lindas.
I admit I’ve come up with “cross between” formulations to describe Wet Leg’s music, because that’s how my brain works: they’re a cross between the Modern Lovers and the Raincoats, or between the Go-Go’s and the Strokes. I’ve seen them compared by other critics to 90s indie bands including Elastica and Pavement too. But at the same time their music sounds new and fresh. There’s a quality to the production that makes it hit almost like modern electronic or dance music; Rhian Teasdale’s vocals are utterly, delightfully unique; and her lyrics are filled with references to contemporary pop culture and digital technology.
More than that, Wet Leg embody a kind of defiantly brash and raunchy attitude that’s particular to young women in the 2020s who are running out of fucks. A friend who saw one of their recent shows here in Sydney (which I was gutted to miss) confirmed that: she said the crowd was filled with young women and that there was a palpable sense that this music was for them. There’s a kind of redemption there. Young women have always loved and participated in rock and roll, but now they have more opportunities than ever to make it. It’s less and less the case that women in rock stand out the way Karen O or Kim Gordon did in the past (though of course sexism and gatekeeping are still rampant in the culture, as the comments section of any Pitchfork article about Billie Eilish will prove).
I’ve been thinking about this stuff a lot lately as I’ve been excavating my formative high school obsession with the Bangles, who always grappled with the tension between rock and pop, not to mention outright sexism in the industry and the media. It’s significant to me that they were my key to discovering all of this, my Rosetta Stone — the ones who educated me about classic rock, and propelled me towards punk and alternative. Thanks to them, any tendency towards rockism or gatekeeping I might have had was smashed at an early age. Through them I realized that rock is a plentitude of styles and sounds. Rock is pop music too. Rock is made by women.
Wet leg have been called “the most hyped band since the Strokes.” If that’s the case, good. They deserve it. I say this as someone who loves the Strokes and thinks they deserved it too. Like the Strokes, they seem gifted with the ability to rise to the occasion, to fulfill their fans’ impossible expectations. This was proven in spades by their electrifying set at Glastonbury in June — which, unbelievably, happened just over a year after the release of their debut single, “Chaise Longue,” and just three years after Teasdale and lead guitarist Hester Chambers formed the band, in the Isle of Wight where they’re from.
When Teasdale sings a line like “When the lights do down on this fuckin’ town / I know it’s time to go,” she has something like the magisterial swagger of Julian Casablancas at his best, and the band has that same ability to combine outrageously infectious melodies with a danceable swing and deliciously crunchy guitars.
Like most people reading this, “Chaise Longue” was my first encounter with Wet Leg. Unlike most people reading this, it didn’t really grab me at first. I thought it was a bit too cutesy and twee, and I thought Teasdale’s deadpan spoken word was a pale imitation of Dry Cleaning.
So it was with a bit of skepticism that I pressed play on the album a couple of months after it dropped — only to be instantly won over. The very first track, “Being in Love,” jumps out of the gate with a confident strut, Teasdale launching into her first verse on the drop of the first beat, weaving a comically wry tale of alienation (“I used to meditate / Now I just medicate”) over a tense 4/4 rhythm and throbbing bass with little synth stabs reminiscent of the Cars. When the whole thing opens up on the ridiculously hummable chorus, and the band lets loose with that chugging midtempo Modern Lovers groove, it’s already over, you’re hooked.
“Chaise Longue” comes next, and in the proper context, and with the volume turned up so I could feel the bass, I understood what all the hype was about. The melodic new-wave minimalism is so fun; the lyrics are laugh-out-loud hysterical; and once you hear Chambers’s guitar line on the chorus you’ll never get it out of your brain for the rest of your life. Compared to most dreary, self-indulgent indie, it’s so damn refreshing, and I think that’s the reason for its viral popularity. It cuts through all the boredom, just like the Ramones or the B-52s must have for earlier generations.
“Chaise Longue” also sums up Teasdale’s ability to combine sexuality with satirical detachment — I love her icy monotone when delivering lines like “I went to school and I got the big D” and “I’ve got a chaise longue in my dressing room / And a pack of warm beer that we can consume.” I’m slightly irritated that I missed the reference to Mean Girls at first (“Would you like us to assign someone to butter your muffin?”).
But the thing about the album is that “Chaise Longue” isn’t even close to being the best track on it. Teasdale and Chambers clearly made a decision to go to another level with songwriting and performance after recording their first single, when they could have done the easy thing and stuck with the same formula. Wet Leg does what great albums do: after hitting you with a one-two punch of brilliance at the start, it then keeps raising the stakes. “Angelica,” the third track and maybe the album’s best, is simply dazzling. Beginning with Chambers’s ringing, clarion-like guitar line (Chambers reminds me of early Vicki Peterson with her short, sharp, instantly memorable guitar parts), it builds up to something truly epic. Massive, spine-tingling guitar riffs are offset by gorgeous breakdowns like 60s girl groups filtered through Beach House’s dream pop, ghostly backing vocals that echo and repeat like techno loops, and Teasdale’s snarky lyrics about a party she doesn’t want to be at (“I don’t know what I’m even doing here / I was told that there would be free beer”). It’s a particularly great showcase for the backing rhythm section of bassist Ellis Durand and drummer Henry Holmes, whose sharp work here bears comparison to Carlos D and Sam Fogarino of Interpol. Indeed I would argue that this track attains the majesty of Turn on the Bright Lights. It’s the best four minutes I’ve heard on record in ages.
“Angelica” is quickly followed by another banger, “I Don’t Wanna Go Out,” and it was about this time I decided no one is going to top this album this year. I especially love how both of these songs are about social anxiety and the shallowness and tedium of music and party scenes — themes that are repeated throughout the album. Like Dry Cleaning’s “Leafy” (“An exhausting walk in the horrible countryside / Tiresome swim in a pointless bit of sea / Knackering drinks with close friends”), it’s “a defiant deconstruction of the empty promise of enforced fun,” as this excellent review points out. It’s a great antidote to toxic positivity, especially in social media (“I don’t wanna follow you on the ’Gram / I don’t wanna listen to your band”), and I find it so relatable. “It used to be so fun / But now everything just feels dumb,” sings Teasdale on “I Don’t Wanna Go Out.” But by the end her jaded shrug becomes surprisingly poignant, a deeper lament about the fatigue and alienation of modern life (“A fucking nightmare / I know I should care / Right now I don’t care”). Her melancholy vocals are matched by a quietly intense, droning instrumental that reminds me of how the Strokes reminded me of Stereolab when I first heard Is This It — the crisp, propulsive postpunk inlaid with Krautrock-via-Velvet Underground influences. That rhythmic depth and complexity lifts it above the run-of-the-mill, as does the outstanding production (primarily by Dan Carey, with Jon McMullen and the band’s touring synth player Josh Mobaraki pitching in to produce one track each).
So, as absurd and funny as many of the lyrics are, there’s surprising emotional depth and vulnerability, and that’s what makes the album click. “Loving You,” perhaps the emotional centerpiece of the album, is a downtempo ballad about heartbreak whose title belies its bitterness. The plaintive chorus (“I don’t wanna have to be friends / I don’t wanna have to pretend”) and the aching bridge, with Teasdale trilling “What’s a girl to do?” are, again, worthy of 60s girl groups like the Ronettes. It was the classic feel of this track that first put the term “rock and roll” in my mind, and made me ponder Wet Leg’s place in that tradition. In the wake of Ronnie Spector’s death early this year I’ve been thinking a lot about the influence of girl groups on bands like the Ramones and the Jesus and Mary Chain; “Loving You” nestles perfectly into that dialogue. Setting aside the modern production and the F-bombs in Teasdale’s lyrics (“Don’t call me up / You fucked it up”), it’s a song that would have been coherent to rock and roll audiences at any point in the last 50 or even 60 years.
The album keeps building on this inventiveness as it winds into the deep cuts. “Wet Dream” expands on the sexual absurdism of “Chaise Longue,” with a funky indie-disco rhythm that has me knocking over the furniture dancing to it at home, and one of my favorite lines on the album: “Baby do you want to come home with me? I’ve got Buffalo 66 on DVD.” “Oh No” stomps with a 4/4 beat and a muscular Stooges/White Stripes garage-rock riff, as Teasdale chants with arch irony about the joy and pain of staring at your phone all night. “Suck the life / From my eyes / It feels nice / I’m scrolling, I’m scrolling.” Chambers’s guitar work is killer here; I love the way you can hear Teasdale’s fingers squeaking on her guitar strings as she plays the rhythm part; and the combination of the priceless lyrics and the crunch of the riffage makes me want to giggle and headbang simultaneously, in that way Spinal Tap or Jack Black do. It’s exhilarating. It fucking rocks; the whole album fucking rocks.
It’s also, incidentally, great music to drive to, as rock and roll should be, thanks to that cruisy feel that reminds me so much of the Cars and the Modern Lovers — especially perfect for sunny spring days like we’ve had here in Sydney lately. The brilliant “Supermarket” makes the Modern Lovers influence blatant, with its laid-back sauntering tempo, its singsong refrain and the way Teasdale romanticizes the mundane: “I wanna take you to the supermarket / I wanna buy you all the shit that you need.”
Wet Leg’s lyrics aren’t polemical, but they’re still feminist in a liberatory sense. They undercut all the stereotypes about women’s emotional dependence on men; and even at their raunchiest there’s a certain nonchalance about sex — like the lampooning of male fantasy in “Wet Dream”: “What makes you think you’re good enough / To think about me when you’re touching yourself?” The themes are split between sardonic horniness and post-breakup exasperation, and the songs are populated with men who are fuckups. “Ur Mum” kicks off with a truly great putdown: “When I think about what you’ve become, I feel sorry for your mum,” before Teasdale tops herself on the second verse by flat-out telling the guy, “Why don’t you just suck my dick?” On “Piece of Shit,” she tells the piece of shit in question, “All right, you’re a good guy / All right, whatever helps you sleep at night”. Even on the heartbreak anthem “Loving You,” she concludes by saying, “I hope you choke on your girlfriend.” In this world, sex and romance are either funny, or they’re shit; there’s very little cloying sentiment.
Teasdale’s vocals are my favorite thing about the album, even considering the nearly flawless songwriting and ace playing. Her deadpan on “Chaise Longue” is only a small indicator of her vocal ability — her voice has surprising, almost operatic power and range, as you can see in these clips of old performances. She could sing like Björk if she wanted to, but she chooses to restrain herself in Wet Leg, whether because that’s what serves the material, or perhaps because she’s playing a “character” so to speak. Once you know that, you realize that sense of power held in check is what makes her vocals so dynamic and unusual.
I love her way of singing in these clipped tones with very precise consonants and slightly elongated vowels. These mannerisms have apparently caused the internet to think Wet Leg are Swedish, when it’s really an Isle of Wight thing; but my sense is that Teasdale is skillfully exaggerating her native accent for effect, and it’s striking.
Teasdale often sings in a beautiful falsetto, which makes the clipped mannerisms even more distinctive, but she’ll suddenly slide down to a lower register, or she’ll go from a whisper to a yelp, or from spoken word back to singing or something in between. Often these fluid change-ups bring out meaning in the lyrics. On “Piece of Shit,” she lets her voice slide up like a whistle when she sings “I fucked it up.” On “Ur Mum,” she does the same in singing “I give up,” then lets loose an effervescent, childlike burst of repeated “ups”: “Up-up-up-up-up,” eventually bending them into a melodic “pah-pah-pah-pah-pah-pah” that sounds almost like a synth line. On “I Don’t Wanna Go Out,” when she sings “We are all going to die,” she makes her voice wobble for morbidly comic effect on the word die. She’s a great backup singer too; on Chambers’s one lead vocal, the excellent “Convincing,” her backing vocals have the angelic quality of the late, great Mary Hansen of Stereolab.
The sheer delight Teasdale takes in her vocals is intoxicating, contagious. She coos, she hums, she revels in nonsense. On “Supermarket” she breaks into yodelling, and I swear it sounds improvised, like she couldn’t contain herself. At the climax of “Ur Mum” she lets loose with a long scream that’s thrilling and slightly terrifying. At Glastonbury the scream was extended and, as the band stopped and invited the entire crowd to scream along, became some kind of ecstatic mass primal scream therapy session — already sealed in Glasto lore as a moment for the ages. That sense of excitement and release and unbridled joy bursting out of music that was already so wonderful and funny and engaging to begin with is a perfect snapshot of what makes Wet Leg so special and this album a magnificent debut.
Feature image credit: Hollie Fernando
3 thoughts on “Wet Leg’s debut LP is a raunchy, joyous treat and an instant rock & roll classic”
This is something I wrote about the band’s fashions, but deleted it from the article because it was already quite long and I didn’t think it fit the flow:
One of the first things you notice about Wet Leg is they have the image game locked down. They have a very distinctive aesthetic. I don’t have enough knowledge about fashion to go into depth, but I really like the “cottagecore” look they rock a lot of the time — the long, old-fashioned, beautifully patterned dresses made of calico and gingham and the like, which look especially good in the pastoral settings typically featured in their promo shots and videos. For their big moment at Glastonbury, they wore these lacy white frocks that were at once charming and slightly disturbing in a Picnic at Hanging Rock sort of way.
I’m sure this image-consciousness is a big part of their reach; they are pop stars, and that’s fine with me. As I said, rock is also pop music, and always has been; and image has always been a part of it. Image and aesthetics played a huge part in, for example, the White Stripes’ and the Ramones’ successes. The Stripes’ fetish for red, white and black? C’mon, that was just fun as hell. However great their music was (and it was incomparably great), the aesthetics added something. The same is true of Wet Leg’s cottagecore. It’s delightful.