There's a moment at the beginning of John Waters's 1990 cult classic film Cry-Baby where Johnny Depp's babely title character is radiating rebellion in full force. Dressed in a leather jacket with his name on the back, sunglasses midway down his nose, he leans up against a black car painted with red flames. As all-American, blond-ponytailed model student Allison walks down the steps of the school, Cry-Baby stares directly at her and lights a match with his teeth. "I'm so tired of being good," she sighs with longing. He puts the lit match into his mouth.
That sigh is how seeing Atlanta's rowdy rock 'n' roll band the Coathangers makes me feel. In matching denim jackets emblazoned with their band name, the ladies of the Coathangers are a hurricane of a band, using primitive howls, gang-style vocals, and manic energy to write gritty, menacing songs on topics like doomed love and Adderall.
The lore of the Coathangers goes that the four original members started the group without any instrumental knowledge as an excuse to play parties, writing hilarious ragers like the scream-along bad-roommate anthem "Don't Touch My Shit." But eight years and four full-length albums later, and that origin story feels like old news, especially since there's nothing amateur about their latest Suicide Squeeze full-length, Suck My Shirt. Tight from an ambitious tour schedule, they rage with a more controlled fire than their first releases, but they have kept the same rambunctious irreverence (yes, the name is an abortion joke) that translates into one of the most fun live shows around. They've also trimmed down to a three-piece—drummer/vocalist Stephanie Luke (aka Rusty Coathanger) thunders on the drums, trading raspy vocal cries with the sing-song yelps and punchy guitar riffs of guitarist/vocalist Julia Kugel (Crook Kid Coathanger) that combine perfectly with the impressive Delta 5–style bass lines and call-back vocals of Meredith Franco (Minnie Coathanger). The result is a wild, party-vibes set with the Coathangers thrashing around, cracking jokes, and amping up the audience—never going through the motions. When I ask Franco what's kept them a band for so long, she simply says: "We love it. We're living our dreams."
Franco says the moment the band realized they could turn what was once just a party pipe dream into something sustainable was when Suicide Squeeze Records founder David Dickenson asked them to put out a 7-inch. "It was when MySpace was still around, and David sent us a message, and we ignored it because we didn't think it was real. We thought it was a joke," Franco recalls, laughing. "So he sent a few more, and we're like, huh, maybe we should call him. I think he had to write us three times or something."
Not taking themselves too seriously is something the band nails consistently, but like Cry-Baby's ability to shed a dreamy lone tear, the Coathangers have a tender side, too. Though Suck My Shirt still has elements of silly humor and cathartic screams (the song "Shut Up" yells the phrase as a chorus), the album follows the trends set by their 2011 Larceny & Old Lace and shows that they've got more than just punk vitriol. Luke's raspy howl on "Derek's Song" remembers Seattle musician Derek Shepherd who passed away in 2012; "Drive," the last song on the album, is a perfect pop snapshot of romantic longing in elegant simplicity: "I'm missing what we never had/And you, you drive away from me," Kugel croons in the heart-wrenching ballad.
But just because they've moved into more serious songwriting territory doesn't mean they can't still crack a good weed joke. For the A.V. Club's cover-song series, Undercover, the group performed a version of the Go-Go's "We Got the Beat" altering the chorus to "Give us your weed/We want your weed/We'll smoke your weed!" Franco says, "We were practicing it one night before sound check, and it just sounded like a cheesy cover, kind of like a karaoke version. So the next day in the van, somebody came up with it as a joke, and we were like, we should do that! Maybe people will start bringing us weed now." And like the eighth-grade delinquents who somehow knew every slang word and were already cigarette-bumming prodigies, if anyone could convince an audience to bring them drugs, it's probably the Coathangers. Says Franco, "It hasn't worked yet, but we'll see." There's your cue, Seattle.