There is a visceral discordancy and inherent chaos that threads throughout ‘Versions of Modern Performance’, the debut album from Chicago trio Horsegirl, (out through Matador Records/Remote Control Records). This anarchy is magically and stunningly resolved by the bitter sweet melodies and harmonies that cloak and bind the barbed-wire strands. The oft dissociated, disconnected vocals are studied, observational and insouciant, set back in the mix as an undercurrent, and providing a counterpoint to the fuzz and the brutal spine.
Drummer Gigi Reece, and guitarists and singers Nora Cheng and Penelope Lowenstein came together with their love of Sonic Youth, and this is certainly reflected in the insouciant swagger and visceral nature of the music.
There is a hint of challenge and excitement in the music that few bands can elicit, and even fewer that can capture with such a sense of presence and wonder. The most recent example for me was Fontaines D.C, then stretching back to Jesus and Mary Chain and Velvet Underground before them. And for me, Horsegirl slide into that rare collective with their debut album.
There is nothing outrageously inventive here but that surely is irrelevant. Rock’n’roll is essentially expression and feeling delivered in (mostly) the same three chords. Just like Shakespeare’s skill was not in inventing stories but the way he interpreted those stories that made him so special, a good band is one that creates something special from a limited combination of chords. Image, sound and swagger: Horsegirl have it all. But importantly, woven into this tapestry is an untrammeled sense of joy of music and friendship: for Horsegirl do not present as poe-faced clinicians in their approach to rock’n’roll tropes in this album, but there is a palpable humour-laced sense of enjoyment stemming from a love of music, style and performance.
Opening track in the digital version of the album, ‘Anti-glory’, is filled with a certain cognitive and sonic dissonance, brutal drums, sweet doo wop backing singing straight from the sixties and a raw visceral guitar attack. This is utterly compelling and marvelous stuff, inveigled as it is with a rock’n’roll bravura and a hypnotic sheen.
The band says:
We wrote Anti-glory almost by accident, while messing around with an old song during rehearsal. The song fell into place immediately, and looking back, we have no idea how we wrote it. As always, this song and album are for Chicago, our friends, our friend’s bands, everyone who can play the guitar, and everyone who can’t play the guitar.
The video, directed by Erin Vassilopoulous, is a mesmerising performance piece – all dead eye stares and Arctic chills delivering a monumental level of sneering attitude and a studied insouciance amongst the scything buzz saw guitars:
‘Beautiful Song’ is just that: a gorgeous, nuanced melody winds its way through the crisp raw guitars displaying a breathtaking range and subtlety. The pace is slower and dreamy, but the instruments still splash and crash with intensity. The rhythm section in ‘Live and Ski’ scatters and splatters while the harmonised vocals move to the fore over discordant unadorned guitar lines, repeating they ask her questions in a dead pan delivery.
The instrumental ‘Bog Bog 1’ has a My Bloody Valentine wash of fuzzy reverberated guitars that etch lines on the horizon and glitter high in the sky like contrails.
Another tasty morsel of insouciance and swagger is the single ‘Dirtbag Transformation (Still Dirty)’. Surely a prize alone for song titles.
The single is a clattering, insistent barrage of fuzzy guitars with disconnected Arctic vocals with sweet melodies that cut a swathe through the buzz. It’s chaotic, irreverent melange of indie rock and a sixties doo-wop sensibility with its hypnotic outro.
The accompanying video show a band with an inherent sense of humour – a shaky super eight video of amateur performers that positively sparkles with a sense of innocent joy:
Horsegirl’s love of amusing titles continues with ‘The Fall of Horsegirl’ as they sing in their dissociated way don’t let them see you, let them see you and count numbers as the song builds up to a crescendo. The track hangs on a soaring bed of instruments that smash and chatter under an arching guitar riff before it collapses into the sonic wonderings of ‘Electrolocation 2’. The physical copy of ‘Versions of Modern Performance’ places ‘Electrolocation 1’ as the opening track. This digital version is another instrumental that rests on ranging guitar riffs, feedback and sonic mutterings that cross the horizons, haunting and atmospheric.
Track 8 is fittingly ‘Option 8’ which has a melodic pop turn: an almost conventional indie rock track that is sent into the stratosphere by Horsegirl’s delivery: Arctic, deadpan and cool, breaking into a stabbing chorus. This is almost a pop disco blast recounting teenage obsessions with an icy delivery.
‘World of Pots and Pans’ is complete with a lyrical nod to The Jesus and Mary Chain and is the most satisfyingly scuzzy pop material that positively shines with an attitude laced with a sullen insouciance. Utterly cathartic rock’n’roll.
The accompanying video is simple and effective – there is a charm about the delivery as the band plays with words and objects on an overhead projector in the gloom. The band says of the song and video:
‘World of Pots and Pans’ is the first love song Horsegirl has ever written—or the closest thing to it. We wrote it in Penelope’s basement while preparing to leave for our first ever tour. The lyrics, inspired by the misinterpretation of a Television Personalities lyric, imagine a (possibly unrequited) romance unfolding through references to Tall Dwarfs, Belle & Sebastian, and The Pastels.
We made the lyric video in a couple hours. The three of us had a fully formed vision of what it should look like and were able to quickly execute the real-time “animation” in only two takes. It feels special to showcase our creative chemistry, and Nora was able to finally carry out her childhood dreams of making an OK Go (ish) type video.
Harmonised melodies coast over the wall of guitars, creating a beautiful tension between the sweet if not dispassionate vocals and the scything barbed-wire strings:
Horsegirl prove beyond doubt that guitars are not dead on this album and track 10, ‘The Guitar is Dead 3’, is testimony to the band’s deadpan sense of humour and irony. The track is nothing more than a brief pattering of a grand piano: a grand, stately piece bereft of any guitars or grit.
Of course ‘Homage to Birdnoculars’ shoves this interlude aside with a grimace and a sneer and gets back to business: a fuzz rolling onslaught with insistent forward movement and ethereal layered vocals with a subtle interplay of guitars and bass that recollects The Smashing Pumpkins.
The album ends with ‘Billy’ – a fuzzy, sweet attack rolling like a gathering dust storm over the horizon, interweaving vocals delivering an anthemic force filled with enigmatic presence.
‘Versions of Modern Performance’ is in my opinion one of the most exciting releases over the past few decades. It is really that good: a celebration of the values of stripped down visceral and exciting rock’n’roll with swagger and attitude and a rich vein of humour running deep inside. It is a vital refresh of the kind of sneering louche indie rock music that is exciting and euphoric: a shot of adrenaline to jolt a fading heartbeat.
‘Versions of Modern Performance’ is out today and available through all the usual download and streaming sites here and through the link below:
Feature Photograph: Cheryl Dunn