When the four members of Atlanta's indie-punk Coathangers — Julia Kugel (guitar), Stephanie Luke (drums), Meredith Franco (bass), Candice Jones (keyboards) — got together half a decade ago, it was the first band for all the members and, according to singer-guitarist Julia Kugel, talking by phone between tour stops in Salt Lake City and Denver, it was an accident.
"We all started jamming together after having margaritas," Kugel says. "And soon people were saying, 'You guys should release records.' And we were like, um ... okay, cool."
The preexisting friendship and relative amateurism — all but Franco ("Meredith's just a natural," Kugel says) had some kind of musical background — drives the charm of their eponymous 2007 debut, where snotty titles like "Shut the Fuck Up" and "Don't Touch My Shit" yield to the mocking riot-grrl-style joke of "Nestle in My Boobies" ("Grab 'em, shake 'em, show them titties love"), and the yearning "Parking Lot" suggests more.
This romper-room punk sound was refined on 2009's Scramble. The Coathangers aren't as loud or traditional as most Southern garage-punk bands. Their sound is both artier and poppier in a manner that, on Scramble, evoked such early post-punk bands as Gang of Four, Pere Ubu, and Kleenex, influences Kugel confirms.
"There's not a ton of that post-punk kind of sound in Atlanta," Kugel says. "But a lot of the bands that come out of Atlanta are about having a good time. We definitely love Gang of Four and Kleenex and all that shit."
With only one guitarist balanced against drum-bass-keyboard and with those post-punk art-pop influences coming to bear, the Coathangers have a spiky, rhythmic sound that allows space for the bandmates' different voices to really come through. The relatively supple Kugel offers a mid-point between Luke's guttural squall and Franco's squeak, with all three women taking lead at one time or another but singing together more often than not: the ping-ponging horror-heroine screams on "Gettin' Mad & Pumpin' Iron" or the way Franco and Kugel weave around each other on the apartment-dweller's lament "Stop Stomp Stompin'."
"I had these really loud neighbors," Kugel says, explaining the latter song. "Guys who wear cowboy boots and listen to Cher," the modern, techno variation: "No matter how much you play her, Cher won't believe in you," Franco and Kugel sing in unison, like a playground taunt.
For last year's Larceny & Old Lace, the band went into a studio for the first time.
"On Scramble, we recorded in our practice space," Kugel says. "With this one we actually went to a studio. We had more time to prepare for it. We had two weeks with mixing time and engineers."
The increase in sound quality is matched by an increase in musical command and songwriting that, happily, doesn't muffle the band's spirit.
The album is bookended by the buzzsaw anthem "Hurricane" and the story-song ballad "Tabbaco Rd.," both featuring Luke on vocals, with the latter about the romance between her grandparents. And there's a tribute to the late Memphis indie-punk star Jay Reatard ("Jaybird"), whom the band befriended during their last local gig.
"We weren't BFFs or anything, but he came out to the show and hung out with us. We had a good time, and he really influenced us," Kugel says.
But the album is highlighted by a pair of tricky love songs. The Kugel showcase "Go Away," the band's current single, started with a simple, provocative hook: "I like you/Go away." But rather than an anti-love-song joke, the deliberate, hooky gem — think the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "Maps" cut with girl-group pop — is an earnest, mature, and prickly romantic treatise. The early assertion "I'm not the kind to wait by the phone" evolves into a declaration: "Hey, I like it when you stray/Because I don't want you every day." The independence of "Go Away" is balanced by the lovesick neediness of "My Baby," a song that walks a fine line between romantic and obsessive: "You're my baby/I can't live without you ... I like to watch you while you sleep/You are the secret that I keep."
With White Mystery and The Vignettes
Friday, April 6th, 9 p.m. $10