Soft Grudge opens with a lethargic, jagged guitar chug ripped straight from the '90s, mixed with sweet and trashy summer poetry. Singer Kelly Grub whispers and wails, "Backyard baby, take me back / put your cigarettes out on my hands and / kiss me with your elbows up / and make me flowers from empties and car exhaust." It's all over in a flash, like sweltering Prairie days spent with someone close.
The Prairies — and Mulligrub's hometown of Winnipeg, in particular — are all over Soft Grudge, both in the thrashy, DIY spirit so prevalent in its punk scene, and literally in Grub's lyrics. When she sings about strolling along the river and passing out in Vimy Ridge Park over the uneasy guitar riffs of "Europe," well, that's something a lot of locals actually do, kind of like a self-destructive youth rite of passage. The already aggressive anxiety of the song swirls viciously at the end, as she scolds a friend turned sexual predator for his refusal — despite multiple offers of help and education — to change. "And where are you now?" Grub howls, "You're getting drunk in Europe / You're fucking up your last chance / to get back the home, the friends, the family you abandoned." She harnesses all that brutal frustration and releases it as if her life — and his, though it's probably too late — depends on it.
It's not all dark, but the themes are certainly all deeply emotional, and Grub sings earnestly about the pains of navigating youth and melancholic nostalgia for simpler days, even raging against the establishment, tripping over and spilling out her wordy lines on "Song About The Man." In the lyrics sent to press, it comes with a disclaimer mentioning slight embarrassment at those lines, written when she was 18. But while it shows a little bit, she's got nothing to worry about; after all, there are few Canadians who wouldn't be able to agree with the frustration behind this slice of truth: "It seems one square of land will not remain sacred / someone has to own it and sell it and pave it."
Soft Grudge traverses that land, too — not only the Prairies, but the Rockies, too, on the breezy, sparkling "Mountains & Houses," and "the rock" is there on the gorgeous and contemplative "NFLD," which features some of the album's best lines, about being taken by an Atlantic undertow. "Just watch the rocks destroy my body," Grub sings, "and watch the parts become part of something / greater than I could ever conceive." It's a very specific feeling she nails, but one that many Canadians, in the presence of such natural beauty, have felt before.
There are moments that feel like they could've been left behind, like the snoozy "Homo Milk," which is pleasant but doesn't particularly add to the record. In general, the lack of hooks sometimes make it feel unwieldy and overwhelming with Grub's poetic words and wild, almost spoken word delivery, but her voice is so compelling it manages to wrangle the songs regardless, even when they feel like they might break through their enclosures. It's easy to think of Soft Grudge as the kind of record Hop Along's Frances Quinlan would've written, if she'd rejected any sort of verse-chorus-verse structure in her songwriting — just see tempestuous standout "Sprite Zero" and its dark and hot-blooded art-punk.
It feels almost like a cop-out to make Weakerthans comparisons, but Grub and John K. Samson share a gift for capturing the emotional gravitas behind the geographies they know. While JKS' approach is often, at least to a degree, voyeuristic or semi-detached, Grub and her band can't help but be part of the alloy — one made of environment, people, feelings — and it's those visceral impulses, which Grub seemingly couldn't turn off even with a gun to her head, that elevates Mulligrub to this deeply personal but wholly relatable in-it-togetherness. It also makes theirs a new voice worth listening to. (Independent)