Horsegirl are three friends who make music in a basement. It’s true, and they want you to know that, not because they’re shy about the attention they’ve received as indie rock’s latest breakthrough, but because the Chicago trio of Penelope Lowenstein, Nora Cheng and Gigi Reece want you to know that they’re having fun. They’re accomplishing that in the way that only passionate teenagers can: professing their admiration for Kim Gordon, painting T-shirts haphazardly, and throwing riffs against the wall until they unfurl into songs. The end product of those basement hangs, Versions of Modern Performance, impressively combines noisy, punk-minded influences that congeal into a wondrous concoction of post-punk, no-wave, early shoegaze, and more. While inspired by the ‘80s and ‘90s cadres of emergent indie rock’s noisier actors, Horsegirl’s sound is singular, curious and glossed with a healthy layer of irony that Gen Z wears like a reliable pair of workboots.
With the help of John Agnello (Kurt Vile, Hop Along) at Electrical Audio, Horsegirl take full advantage of their studio setting while maximizing the DIY sound that charmed fans on early releases. Opening with bouncing drums and droning guitars on “Anti-glory,” Horsegirl set the stage with fun and dance above all else on a song that emerged from their practice sessions seemingly out of thin air. “Beautiful Song” pits cuckooing vocals against an echoing choir of guitars, swirling in the heavens and encroaching on shoegaze. The rhythmically challenging and sonically abrasive “Live and Ski” presents an opportunity for Cheng and Lowenstein to sing in hushed harmonies throughout, inserting some exciting mystery into their delivery. The record closes its first chapter with one of three instrumental tracks, “Bog Bog 1,” a lo-fi shoegaze improv experience that could easily be mistaken for a My Bloody Valentine demo. Each instrumental on Versions is unique; “Electrolocation 2” emphasizes all-encapsulating drones, manifesting the electrical field disturbances the song’s title evokes. The playfully titled “The Guitar Is Dead 3” is a sub-minute-long reverberating piano experiment, with keystrokes guided by spiritual entropy into a moment of gentle respite for the otherwise propulsive record.
As tonally experimental as much of Versions proves itself to be, Horsegirl also play with more recognizable pop music, putting their own spin on pop sound and structure. Songs like “Dirtbag Transformation (Still Dirty)” and “World of Pots and Pans” offer the guileful structures of pop and inspire emotions like celebration and nostalgia. “World of Pots and Pans” especially ebbs into a jangly, twee-adjacent space, suggesting what might happen if someone blew out their stereo trying to blast The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. The characters they call forth reveal the depth of Horsegirl’s imaginative landscape: “Won’t see her dance or see her run / There’s simply nothing to be done / When Emma sweeps the floor it turns more gray.” All the while, the band’s punk mindset informs the messy, deadpan delivery that transfixes listeners. On the opposite end of the spectrum, “The Fall of Horsegirl” offers an ominous doom-and-gloom that feels comparable to freefalling in the void—but with a title so ironic, given the subject’s meteoric rise, one has to wonder if there’s a layer of BS spread keeping the song’s mood lightened. “The Fall of Horsegirl” creatively projects perfectionist anxieties that reappear on “Option 8,” a hook-laden post-punk track so catchy, one might miss the commands: “Stand straight, don’t be late!”
Horsegirl dial up the intrigue on “Homage to Birdnoculars,” whose repeated entreaties, “Fall into my / Wormhole,” are at once disconcerting and charming. At one level, one has to wonder if the track is an attempt at hypnosis before album closer “Billy,” a pensive, noisy track following another figment of the band’s inspired imagination. Horsegirl invite Steve Shelley and Lee Ranaldo to help close this track out with some extra volume and shreddage, properly bookending the record with no answers (how postmodern) but walls of sound. Coincidentally, “Billy” was also the debut single for the record, and the band’s first for Matador; in context, it is quite evident that the song is an effective closer.
As evocative and exciting as each song is in showing the fun the band have, and exemplifying the styles/genres that inspire them, one of the best aspects of Versions is its sequencing. The record achieves balance between the band’s variegated stylistic envoys and instrumental transitions help to manifest vibe shifts that permit the band space to hopscotch around. They oscillate between styles rather than grouping bombastic tracks together and allowing them to outshine the rest of the record, an unfortunately common sin. Between the stylistic achievements that feel refreshing without over-referencing, the truly deadpan delivery on a coiled bed of noise, and (at last) some proper sequencing, Versions of Modern Performance is a smart record that prove Horsegirl to be the real deal. Their basement hangs will, in all likelihood, generate more exciting recordings well into the future.
Devon Chodzin is a critic and urban planner with bylines at Slumber Mag, Merry-Go-Round and Post-Trash. He also arranges national & local shows at Cleveland’s legendary Grog Shop. He lives on Twitter @bigugly