Three teenage indie-rock fanatics who bonded over Sonic Youth, Belle & Sebastian, and Flying Nun Records, whose own music feels as vital as the ’80s and ’90s underground legends that inspired it? Horsegirl seem too good to be true — perhaps especially for aging millennial indie fans like myself and our Gen X predecessors. The decidedly Gen Z trio’s output is so laser-targeted toward my own 38-year-old white-guy-with-a-Pavement-T-shirt biases that I am suspicious of my love for it. Have I gassed them up so much because I somehow feel validated by their embrace of records I’ve long touted as canon? Maybe, but Horsegirl’s music transcends whatever the kids are alright because they agree with me ego-boost is going on.
It just isn’t that easy to channel the spirit of late 20th century indie rock. We know this because for basically the whole 21st century so far, bands have been trying, launching wave after wave of ’80s and ’90s revivalism. Some of that stuff has been brilliant, and some of it has been vacuous, but either way, by now the well should be dry. After so many years of what James Murphy once dubbed “borrowed nostalgia,” Horsegirl’s shtick should feel tired — the sonic equivalent of an old zine Xeroxed one too many times. Instead, this band is invigorating. Fueled by the classics, Horsegirl have come up with classics of their own: first a prodigious debut EP in 2020, and now a phenomenal full-length album called Versions Of Modern Performance. Out this Friday, it sounds the way young music-geek enthusiasm feels.
As explained in our Band To Watch feature, Nora Cheng, Penelope Lowenstein, and Gigi Reece formed Horsegirl as high school students after meeting through Chicago’s various youth music programs and all-ages DIY shows in late 2018. Their friendship revolved around music, and soon they were crafting songs of their own, spurred on by supportive parents and a collective of their creative peers known as Hallogallo. By last year, before any of them had graduated high school, their single “Ballroom Dance Scene” was in heavy rotation on SiriusXMU and they’d signed to Matador — still one of the world’s most popular and influential independent labels, and once upon a time the cornerstone of ’90s critic-bait indie. Both in terms of style and quality, they belong.
Whereas a quickie EP like 2020’s Ballroom Dance Scene et cetera (best of Horsegirl) could have been a fluke, Versions Of Modern Performance holds strong over 12 tracks. That’s partially because Horsegirl have so much range within their aesthetic that their songs rarely blur into each other. Post-punk opener “Anti-glory,” with its pulsing bass and pounding mechanistic drums, shows off a different skill set from the raw guitar-pop single “Dirtbag Transformation (Still Dirty),” with its bashed-out Built To Spill vibes. At times they hone in on an indie-pop midpoint between the clean lines and clear sounds of early Stereolab and the ragged echo-chamber shoegaze of Black Tambourine. It’s all held together by signature touches like hooky deadpan vocals and harmonically dense, effects-laden guitar noise — fundamental elements of underground rock, deployed with a flair and expertise far beyond Horsegirl’s age.
The album comes with clout baked in: Beyond Matador’s imprimatur, it was recorded in the band’s hometown of Chicago at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio by producer John Agnello, the indie super-producer whose client list includes Dinosaur Jr., the Hold Steady, Waxahatchee, Nothing, Hop Along, Kurt Vile, and many more. Steve Shelley and Lee Ranaldo, members of key Horsegirl influence Sonic Youth, contribute to a pair of the most thrilling tracks, the tumbling, flanging noise-pop stunner “Beautiful Song” (truth in advertising) and the triumphantly fuzzed-out closer “Billy.” Among these two veteran-rookie summits, the former is almost violently delicate, with its singsong vocal melody and guitar that sounds like splashes of beauty spilling over from a boiling cauldron; the latter embodies the glory of locking onto a couple pretty chords and giving yourself over to the distortion.
Yet one listen to the wordless interlude “Bog Bog 1” is proof that these kids are masters of melodic guitar noise in their own right, without assistance from their elder heroes. That song and the subsequent “Electrolocation 2” are so much more gorgeously dynamic than the one-size-fits-all sludge being slathered on by most shoegazers today, while the piano-led “The Guitar Is Dead 3” taps into an eerie serenity all its own. It’s rare to find an indie rock album where the instrumentals stand out as some of the most breathtaking tracks, but it’s even rarer to find a band so skilled at both tearing open the fabric of reality and evoking the raw power of the natural world. These tracks are more than mere My Bloody Valentine worship; they’re little works of art.
That’s by no means a slight against Horsegirl’s other songs, which nail a tricky balance between ultra-hip remove and open-hearted vulnerability. They can sound so commanding: the repeated calls to “Dance! Dance! Dance with me!” on “Anti-glory,” the warning “Don’t let them see you” on “The Fall Of Horsegirl,” the mantra-like invitation to “Fall into my wormhole” on “Homage To Birdnoculars.” But even those imperatives are tender in their own way, and there’s plenty of self-doubt in a line like “Stand straight, don’t be late, I never meant to hesitate” from the brisk “Option 8.” It doesn’t get much more unguarded than the “Dirtbag Transformation” confession, “Yes, I am scared, and I am prone to everything I’ve ever known.” In glimpses of clarity like these, Cheng and Lowenstein give off that especially teenage combination of self-assurance and self-doubt that animated their recent Matador forebear Lindsey Jordan of Snail Mail, but without so much studio sparkle.
A lot of Horsegirl’s lyrics are just comprehensible enough to be mysterious. There are references to drowning and crucifixion but also nonsense syllables and a bird impression, all of it adding texture to the album’s concise little world. And then there’s the Yo La Tengo-esque “World Of Pots And Pans,” strewn with lyrical nods to bands like the Pastels and Gang Of Four that play like Easter eggs for Horsegirl’s fellow old-school indie enthusiasts. They don’t really have to spell out where they’re coming from because their love for records like those comes through loud and clear on every song. It’s a passion a lot of people are going to be feeling for Versions Of Modern Performance too.
Versions Of Modern Performance is out 6/3 on Matador.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Angel Olsen’s Big Time, which we’ll explore in further depth later
• Post Malone’s Twelve Carat Toothache, which, same
• Drive-By Truckers’ Welcome 2 Club XIII
• S.G. Goodman’s Teeth Marks
• Nine Of Swords’ BEYOND THE SWORDS
• POLIÇA’s Madness
• Andrew Bird’s Inside Problems
• 070 Shake’s YOU CAN’T KILL ME
• Editrix’s Editrix II: Editrix Goes To Hell
• GWAR’s The New Dark Ages
• Fantastic Negrito’s White Jesus Black Problems
• Former Weaves singer Jasmyn’s solo debut In The Wild
• Kamikaze Nurse’s Stimuloso
• Flaccid Mojo’s FM
• Adrian Quesada’s Boleros Psicodélicos
• iamamiwhoami’s Be Here Soon
• Artificial Brain’s Artificial Brain
• Druids’ Shadow Work
• The Sheepdogs’ Outta Sight
• The Fixx’s Every Five Seconds
• Merzbow & Lawrence English’s Eternal Stalker
• Erica Dawn Lyle & Vice Cooler’s star-studded LAND ACT: Benefit For North East Farmers Of Color
• Purity Ring’s Graves EP