An even more classic-rock-minded product of the same Philadelphia scene that spawned Kurt Vile and The War on Drugs, Purling Hiss began as a solo project for Mike Polizze, whose crude, fuzz-addled self-recordings disguised some truly magnificent guitar work. That guitar is no longer hidden on Purling Hiss’ fourth LP, Water on Mars, an album that marks a number of firsts for the group. It’s the project’s first release for Drag City, their first recording as a trio (Polizze is now joined by bassist Kiel Everett and drummer Mike Sneeringer) and their first album that doesn’t sound like a demo cassette that fell in a puddle.
The cleaner fidelity hasn’t cost the group its edge. All snarled riffs and shredded showboating, “Lolita” opens the record on a note of high sleaze, playing like the most deviant song Alice Cooper never wrote. The skid-row rocker “Face Down” is even more lurid, fixated on pleasures of the flesh with scant regard for consent. Both songs are altogether too convincing in their depravity, but Polizze fares far better when he drops the gross-out sexuality and showcases his tuneful side. Bright and buzzy, “Mercury Retrograde” is the most unapologetically catchy rocker he’s written yet, while “The Harrowing Wind” feels like the kind of bubblegum-grunge single The Meat Puppets might have recorded if they’d been looking to capitalize on “Backwater.”
For all its polish, Water on Mars retains a sense of spontaneity, with a handful of soft, folky tunes like “Dead Again” and “She Calms Me Down” lending the album the eclectic, grab-bag feel of The Men’s last couple of records. And on the seven-minute title track, Polizze springboards from a wah-wah-drenched stoner jam into a rollicking alterna-pop finale. It’s the kind of trick that would have been eclipsed by the cruddy mix of Purling Hiss’ previous home recordings, but comes across proudly on this welcome upgrade.