Credit: Cheryl Dunn
by Fred Barrett Music Obscure Object

Horsegirl — Versions of Modern Performance

July 14, 2022

Horsegirl’s debut doesn’t quite distinguish itself from the influences it so enthusiastically sources, but there’s plenty here to suggest bigger and better things going forward.

Right out of the gate, Horsegirl’s debut album Versions of Modern Performance boasts some serious indie rock clout: released by Matador Records and recorded at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio by regular Dinosaur Jr. producer John Agnello, the LP also has guest spots from Sonic Youth members Steve Shelley and Lee Ranaldo on two of the album’s standout tracks — the pair eager to support a band so clearly enamored with the sounds they helped create and pave the way for. Having emerged from Chicago’s young indie music scene, Horsegirl blend their love for the alternative guitar sounds of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s into an enticing, if uneven, DIY noise pop cascade.

Opening with the incredible “Anti-glory,” the band sets the tone early with wiry guitars and mechanical drums, letting the song’s lush post-punk groove fizzle out after the opening verse to make way for a staccato chorus where the chant of “Dance! Dance with me!” is repeated over and over, echoing Joy Division’s manic “Transmission” or even the barked orders of DAF’s “Der Mussolini.” “Beautiful Song” delivers on the promise made by its title, by pitting a melodic falsetto and Ranaldo’s shimmering, behind-the-bridge guitar chirps against a whammy-inflected, reverb-laden bridge. If this opening pair serves as a powerful introduction to Horsegirl’s strengths, the third track indicates some of their shortcomings. Vibey and meandering, “Live and Ski”‘s skeletal structure and deadpan vocals don’t quite live up to the high expectations set by the preceding cuts. The song, unfortunately, sets the stage for a fairly unspectacular middle section, that the group doesn’t really recover from until track nine.

“Dirtbag Transformation (Still Dirty)” is an unremarkable spin on Built to Spill’s scrappy melodicism, while the faster-paced “Option 8” is held back by its monotonous rhythm and drab rhyming schemes. Instrumental interludes punctuate the album’s 33-minute runtime and offer some welcome sonic variety, although they don’t exactly rival the towering monuments to abstract beauty that some of their idols managed to conjure, falling short of both their ambition and execution — although the ethereal, piano-led “The Guitar is Dead 3” stands out for its change in instrumentation, as well as its irreverent title, echoing a sentiment heard at least since the 1980s. The album title itself references the winking, quasi-highbrow conceptualism of Refused and The Nation of Ulysses, its descriptive detachment reflected in the vocal deliveries of guitarist Nora Cheng and bassist Penelope Lowenstein, who deliver their appropriately abstract lyrics with a layer of ironic, Gen Z matter-of-factness that sometimes drifts a little close to disinterest. But when they hit the sweet spot between sparse, jittery experimentation and straightforward tunemongering, their voices reveal a guarded vulnerability that, given the right musical backdrop, they already command masterfully.

After a mid-album lull, Versions of Modern Performance regains its footing when the exciting fuzz pop of “World of Pots and Pans” rolls around, whose knowing lyrical nods to Beat Happening, Gang of Four, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and The Cure are sure to excite their fellow teenage alt-rock enthusiasts. The LP closes strong with “Billy,” a bright and faintly melancholy ode to juvenile solipsism (“Billy has a little nickname for his paradise / He folds it up and sets it on the mantelpiece to look real nice“), propelled by Gigi Reece’s unobtrusive, loose drumming. The pensive song accelerates after the halfway mark, building up to an exhilarating and subtly dissonant finale. And so concludes Versions of Modern Performance, a record bookended by its strongest songs and slightly bogged down by a somewhat underwhelming, though not entirely uninteresting, batch in the middle. While their commitment to musical diversity is commendable, listening to some of the band’s earlier singles, it seems that re-recording tracks like the playful “Sea Life Sandwich Boy” might’ve served the album better than including dirgey numbers like “The Fall of Horsegirl,” since their melodic instincts are clearly more developed than their murkier ones.

Between the unfussy production, stick-in-your-brain vocal lines, and the group’s willingness to challenge themselves stylistically, Horsegirl still seem content with capably emulating their heroes, without offering a particularly unique vision of their own. But with their obvious songwriting talents and adventurous impulses, it’s only a matter of time before they’ll be going on to bigger and better things — perhaps even to an artistic statement that rivals those of their faves.

Published as part of Album Roundup — June 2022 | Part 1.