One of the loudest shows I've seen in recent memory was Portland's Summer Cannibals promoting their 2015 full-length Show Us Your Mind. My biggest takeaway that night was how effortlessly frontwoman and lead guitarist Jessica Boudreaux churned out hook after hook — all of which sounded like a buzzsaw on its last leg.
It only takes a song or two into the set to realize that Boudreaux's guitar playing is the crux of the combo. Out in front — and typically strangled by fuzz — the one-woman riff factory bestows the raw, "pre"-grunge of Greg Sage (Wipers) or sewer-guitar of Rob Vasquez (Nights and Days); hooks vary from Black Sabbath to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. But unlike a lead axe in a band centered around whatever shots the guitarist is calling, Boudreaux stresses she's not the focal point when it comes to piecing together the Cannibals' material. She says her guitar parts aren't really born until hearing a drum beat or bass line first.
This approach, paired with some lineup changes, has made for arguably the band's strongest effort yet in Can't Tell Me No on Tiny Engines Records.
As a whole, Can't Tell Me No still bears the familiar off-leash element of Boudreaux's guitar work, but finds its songs drifting down a dark, ominous river, making turbulent turns along the way not unlike the melodic-yet-unpredictable sides of Sonic Youth or Pavement. Anytime the production begins to feel a little too slick, the heaviness finds a way to create some sort of disarray.
The album's title track blazes along a choppy beat, with surges of fuzz intermittently firing off ahead of a giant chorus with Boudreaux chanting, "Can't tell me no!" By contrast, near the album's end is "Spin," a borderline shoegaze anthem. Loaded guitars weave through a ballad that depicts a story of helplessly watching a toxic relationship from afar.
The widening sound on the band's fourth full-length isn't so much a change of direction as it is a change in supporting cast and outlook. The album features newbies Cassi Blum and Ethan Butman joining Boudreaux and mainstay drummer Devon Shirley — all of whom embrace the new record's experimentation and rejection of boundaries.
Prior to Boudreaux recruiting Blum for the Cannibals, the two had been running a home recording studio in Boudreaux's basement, tracking and mixing predominantly Portland-based rock acts. The pair's expertise paved the way for the band to engineer and produce Can't Tell Me No on their own.
"On a personal level, [the new additions] are great," says Boudreaux, who believes the immediate commitment from the new blood has electrified her always-expanding desire to tour and make records. "But Cassi and Ethan both have brought a lot to the sound of the band — and to the new record. I think we're all really excited for the next one because the plan is to just keep making [this] more and more collaborative."
The new album's June release symbolizes more than just the completion of a new record with new members, however. The roughly two years leading up to Can't Tell Me No were marred by the end of a tumultuous relationship between Boudreaux and an industry-related person connected to the band. In the aftermath of the blowup, Boudreaux and the band chose to scrap an entire Summer Cannibals album that was ready to be released — all because of the person's involvement.
Some might be quick to assume that for the Cannibals not to release the album is a sign of defeat, or would be allowing their artistic expression to be suppressed. However, trashing it was Boudreaux's way of ensuring no one could financially benefit from the music. To her, songs aren't worth it.
"I've never been precious about the music I write," says Boudreaux. "A song is a song to me. I know a song can mean so much [to someone], it can change somebody's life, it can help people out through really tough things. But when I write a song, I close the session and I write a new song. I feel proud of the record [Summer Cannibals] made before the new one, but I knew that I could write a record just as good, if not better. And I could do it without the weight of someone's hand on it.
"At the end of the day, it's just a record. It's not gonna cure cancer." ♦
Summer Cannibals with Wild Powwers and Itchy Kitty • Sun, Sept. 22 at 8 pm • $10 advance, $12 day of • All ages • The Bartlett • 228 W. Sprague • thebartlettspokane.com • 747-2174