In its most cheeky post-punk form, the debut album by horse girla trio from Chicago, sports a title (Modern performance versions) which sounds like a dry textbook and contains an instrument titled “The Guitar Is Dead 3”. Even more sardonic, this piece is built around solemn piano chords – because, after all, the guitar is dead, right?
Not in the resurrected world of indie, that’s not the case. From the early days of Parquet Courts to Dry Cleaning, Wet Leg, England’s Black Midi and Amsterdam’s Pip Blom, what was once called college rock back then has come back with a bang. Again we hear records built around stinging guitars, live percussion and deadpan or carefree singers. Horsegirl’s early singles, like 2019’s “Forecast” and 2020’s “Sea Life Sandwich Boy” and “Ballroom Dance Scene,” had the ethereal vibe that wafted through the chill. But last year’s gorgeous tribute to their hometown, “Billy,” kicked their sound up a grimy notch, with vocalist-guitarists Nora Cheng and Penelope Lowenstein singing different verses simultaneously.
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Modern performance versions picks up where “Billy” left off, running through the modern indie checklist in the process. Guitars where you can practically hear the picks strumming against the strings, unlike the processed-sounding instruments of modern pop? Check. Guttural basslines that rise and fall with counterpoint melodies? Do. Voices half-buried in a cavernous mix, singing elliptical lyrics or, in one case, the name-checking of Tom Verlaine and Patti Smith’s debut album? Mission accomplished. A general, heady vibe that you’re standing in a crowded basement club circa 1993, immersed in beautiful sonic misery? Yeah.
But in many ways, any similarity to Horsegirl’s peers ends there. They’re not just serious about providing CPR to an old genre; they’re just serious, period. There’s nothing cute or even borderline novel about the thunderous “Dirtbag Transformation (Still Dirty)”, with its suggestions of a broken family, or the equally uncompromising “Option 8″, with its spooky lines like ” I’m on the run from my son’s severed leg.On “Beautiful Song,” the instruments crumble in on themselves, as if on the brink of chaos, before the trio, which also includes drummer Gigi Reece, pulls the song from the edge of the abyss. Others may have done it before, but this sound remains completely hypnotic after all these years.
Modern performance versions doesn’t just revive a certain sound; it revives the idea of mystery and tension in rock & roll. As they ask in “Option 8”, “Who can say when all the roofs will collapse again?” Rock hasn’t asked those kinds of questions in a while, and Horsegirl is here to raise them again and let the answers linger hauntingly in the air.
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