Review Summary: The Chicago trio’s debut is a feast of retro indie, but the band could benefit to take their forebears’ advice to “kill yr idols.”
If the measure of a debut album is how well it establishes what an artist is about and begins carving a niche for them in whatever relevant scene they come from, then Versions of Modern Performance
is at least something of a success. The first major release, following a handful of excellent singles, from young Chicago trio Horsegirl, the album is the type that will have listeners playing “Spot the Influence,” and while the band do wear their many (great) influences on their sleeve (think: just about every noisy indie rock band from the ‘80s and ‘90s), the patient listener will discover moments where their own identity begins to shine through.
While it would be easy to get bogged down by the band’s “narrative” as an all-non-male act whose members are only just out of high school yet whose album is being issued by Matador Records despite only three prior officially released songs (none of which feature on Versions of Modern Performance
), or by how much the album’s relatively brief runtime (33 minutes) and mix of proper songs and short tracks of studio noodling calls to mind a hundred ‘90s lo-fi indie projects, the most important question, of course, is: How’s the music? The answer: Pretty damn good, the band conjuring a tasty and punchy blend of slacker indie, shoegaze, noise pop, and post-punk that always sounds awesome and, at its best, highlights the raw energy of a power trio who play off each other well and clearly love what they do.
Any fan of crunchy, textured guitar sounds and crisp, dynamic drumming should find something to enjoy here, and for the most part the songs make listening for those worthwhile. The best tunes here deliver neat, noisy riffs and sticky hooks aplenty, the band demonstrating their ability to lay a solid foundation, add a twist or two to shake things up, and then GTFO as quickly as they can. Where the album lags, aside from a trio of short instrumentals scattered across the tracklist that achieve little other than disrupting the album’s flow and underscoring the band’s fondness for pedalboard and studio trickery, is where the band fail to provide effective enough twists or a strong enough hook to anchor the tunes. These tracks, such as “Homage to Birdnoculars” and “The Fall of Horsegirl,” tend to base themselves around repeating drum, guitar, or vocal lines, wandering aimlessly in search of a hook, the latter’s disorienting and slightly menacing shoegaze atmospheres and weird studio sounds not quite enough to save it.
Obvious as their influences are, where Horsegirl does display genuine identity is in the dual vocals of Nora Cheng and Penelope Lowenstein, the way they play off each other’s slacker delivery adding further dynamism and mystery to the album’s best tracks. The lyrics themselves are generally meaningless, practically word salad at times, which is why it’s best when they spit them off rapid-fire without repetition and invite you to exert more of your attention on the rhythms and melodies or the guitar sounds they use to adorn them (or even when they resort to completely wordless refrains such as the “oo”s in the outro of “Dirtbag Transformation (Still Dirty)”).
Interestingly, despite their flaws, the band show a pretty strong intuition for their best material, the album’s clear standouts being its singles (for the uninitiated, “Anti-Glory,” “Dirtbag Transformation,” “World of Pots and Pans,” and “Billy”) which are pretty evenly distributed across the course of the album, occupying the opening and closing positions and helping to engage interest right away and leave a good taste in the listener’s mouth at the end, tempting repeat plays. But this, in addition to the shameless padding of the instrumental tracks, does beg the question of whether Horsegirl were quite
ready for an LP release or if they should have instead pared this down to make a truly excellent EP (take the singles, throw in “Beautiful Song” and “Option 8” for good measure and you’d have a winner of a 20-minute release). Because, as pleasant as all these tracks are and as fun as the full album experience is, it’s hard not to leave Versions of Modern Performance
with the impression that, while promising, Horsegirl haven’t learned to fully embrace their strengths yet. For now, though, one could do much worse than throw any of several the noise pop gems present here onto their summer playlists.