Review Summary: Supergroup meets expectations but fails to exceed them.
Listening to boygenius, the new “supergroup” project of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus, has made me reevaluate what I wanted to hear from such a collective. I enjoy all three artists individually, so the news that they were forming a band was very exciting. But did I want their music to sound like their solo albums? Or did I want them to combine their talents to create something none of them have done before? Before the EP’s release, I would have said that I would be content with the former, but after hearing it, I can’t help but wish for the latter.
The three band members exulted in their newfound collaborative spirit in the weeks leading up to boygenius
, but frankly, the EP doesn’t sound collaborative enough
. The songs weren’t really written from start-to-finish with input from everyone; rather, even the most unfinished tracks already had their bones. Thus, it is not nearly as fun as it should be to pick out the songwriters’ individual DNA strands in these songs. “Stay Down” and “Souvenir” sound like Julien Baker songs and “Me & My Dog” sounds like a Bridgers song. It’s the same with Dacus’s “Bite the Hand” and “Salt the Wound”. The addition of backing vocals or having someone else sing a verse here or there doesn’t really change that, and I don’t really hear anything that couldn’t be accomplished on a solo album with overdubs. “Ketchum, ID” is probably the most “CS&N”-like of all the tracks, living up to the album cover homage with its acoustic backing and lilting, three-part-harmony chorus. However, everyone’s solo verses sound better than the chorus, which is merely blandly pretty and has a volume that doesn’t quite match with the austere verses.
Still, there are brilliant and beautiful moments in every song. All the members are good songwriters, but their vocals are what shine the most throughout. Contrary to pre-release grumbling about Dacus’s involvement, her songs are the most uniformly excellent. Perhaps it is her deeper, resonant voice that lends itself to Baker’s and Bridger’s higher registers, or maybe her more conventional indie songwriting is inherently more suited to vocal harmonies, but “Bite the Hand” and especially “Salt the Wound” are stunning. Instead of simply trading verses, Baker and Bridgers accentuate Dacus’s voice, either responding to her calls in “Bite the Hand” or dancing atop some of her best lyrics in “Salt the Wound” (“Trick after trick, I make the magic/And you unrelentingly ask for the secret”). In fact, I would say that this EP is the best vocal showcase yet for all of boygenius. Perhaps there was healthy competition, or maybe they brought out the best in each other, but they all seemed to have pushed their singing further than I’ve heard before. Baker’s vibrato is more prominent than it has ever been, Bridgers plays up her warm tones and is, frankly, a little underused, and Dacus pushes her voice to heights rarely heard in her solo music.
But musically, the release doesn’t live up to the promise of the vocals. There’s not much here beyond standard indie. Nonetheless, it is very pleasant to listen to. Baker shows off some great banjo and mandolin skills, and I hope she uses them in her solo music someday. A violin flits around “Souvenir”, seemingly lifted from Stranger in the Alps
. Bridgers described Baker’s “Salt in the Wound” solo as “cock-rock” in an interview. That’s not really an apt description. In fact, there is hardly even a guitar solo in that song, but it’s still nice to hear them switch it up a little bit. In the end, they might have done better to go full-on CS&N. Instead, boygenius makes too many concessions to the solo work of its members when they could have been so much more.