by Joseph Thomas
Cindy Lee is the nom de plume of Calgary's Patrick Flegel, who at this stage is still much better known as singer and guitarist of their former group Women, one of few rock bands to earn themselves a legacy that seems set to endure into the next decade thanks mostly to 2010's stunning and influential Public Strain. While Flegel's brother and former bandmate Matt, along with Women drummer Mike Wallace picked up the pieces following an acrimonious hiatus made permanent by the death of their friend and guitarist Chris Reimer and found career-rock success as Preoccupations, Patrick's burrowed further underground, quietly releasing music under the Cindy Lee moniker for the last six years with seemingly total indifference to any sort of audience.
It seems fitting then, that Malenkost and Act of Tenderness, both originally released in 2015 and disseminated by Flegel himself and Vancouver's Isolated Now Waves respectively, have been re-issued by Superior Viaduct. The label has built its reputation on repressing early Fall records, Suicide's classic debut, Glenn Branca, sub-underground kiwi lo-fi auteur Peter Jeffries... Not only does the music of all these artists serve as useful reference points for Flegel's current project, they all conveyed through their art a similar sense of radical apathy towards not only the whims of the general music listening public, but towards the definable trends of their artistic peers. In doing so they, like Cindy Lee does, hit upon something irrevocable and timeless in their music. And, like Suicide and Dragnet, Malenkost and Act of Tenderness more than any other album in recent memory suggest that while most casual listeners will find little of value here, a select few attuned ears will find their content nothing short of revelatory, a scratch for an itch they never knew they had.
Much of the uniqueness of Flegel's work across these two albums derives from their incredible penchant for mining 50's and 60's pop. In this respect, and with respect to the often non-existent fidelity, they're comparable to Dirty Beaches, especially circa Badlands. But where Alex Z. Hungtai often relied on samples and drilling repetitive motifs to create an aestheticized re-vamp of mid-century rock 'n' roll, Flegel has a studious knack for the more straight-out pop songcraft of that era that allows him to artfully recreate the atmosphere that listening to divas like The Supremes and folksy songstresses like Skeeter Davis produces in our contemporary age. Flegel seizes on the tragic nature often at the heart of this music, ramping up the psychic damage at the core of heartbreak odes like "End of the World" to an aching intensity, their eerie falsetto and only-just-in-key harmonies projecting a dusty other-world of pain. Cindy Lee translates this gift, most apparent on "Always Lovers" and "The Last Train's Come and Gone" across several stylistic modes. There's the funereal psychedelia of Malenkost's "Claim of Vanity" and "Death Sentence", which sounds a bit like The Byrds if they actually took acid; dirgey and genuinely foreboding. They also render it sublimely as a bizarre and stark form of synthpop on Act of Tenderness' "What I Need" and "Operation". And then there are the frequent interlopings of various atonalities that punctuate each album. Grating violin drones, feedback and vocal shrieks, rhythm tracks played completely out of time. Comparisons to Swell Maps are tempting but insufficient. There is an especially genuine feeling of injury these noisier tracks contribute and marry to Flegel's frail voice and sparse instrumentation that you don't find in much other music.
Everything about Flegel's project makes it feel beamed in from a past decade in an alternate dimension, from it's place on a label more used to reissuing decades-old underground classics to the affectively demure name they've chosen, not to mention the fact that their primary internet presence is a fucking geocities site. If the music wasn't enough, these trimmings prove it to be the work of someone who is plainly on their own path, admirably free from any pretense of careerism or populism. That's a pretty rare and thrilling thing to behold in art these days, and therefore I can not reccommend these albums enough.