An Almost Joyless Division
Belfast quartet Girls Names have obviously been reading their press. Their 2011 debut album (as a three piece), Dead to Me, was called “effortlessly catchy, sun-kissed pop” and “sprightly, dewy-eyed, well-played surf-rock” in a review that ran on Pitchfork, despite the presence of songs titled “I Could Die” and “Bury Me”, which would suggest a more Gothic approach. Anyway, this review went on to say that, “Their sound is vaguely reminiscent of labelmates Crystal Stilts, minus the psychedelic overtones and the Factory Records gloom that make that band so interesting.” So I get the impression that these Northern Ireland indie rockers read that line and went, “Let’s turn towards psychedelic overtones and gloom so that we’ll be more interesting.” And so we now have The New Life, which is exactly that: a complete turn towards the dark and foreboding, with guitar lines that are eerily reminiscent of the Cure somewhere around their Seventeen Seconds phase, and vocals that are drenched in so much reverb that it’s hard to get a bead on what’s being sung. The comparison to the Cure is apt, as the jump from Dead to Me to The New Life is akin to the stylistic change from the Cure’s post-punk debut Three Imaginary Boys to their follow-up, the aforementioned Seventeen Seconds, which saw the band turning towards more Goth-y territory that would eventually become part of that band’s trademark sound. Listening to The New Life is a little like sitting on a snow-covered beach with grey waves crashing in and only the slightest hint and glimmer of sunlight peeking through. It’s a departure from the surf-rocky sounds of the debut, that’s for sure. Not an entire departure, as the guitars still jangle, but one nonetheless.
Probably because of the band’s turn towards early ‘80s doom and gloom of the British scene, the UK press is lapping this record up, and it has earned high marks and lavish praise from the likes of the BBC and New Musical Express. I think that’s probably because Girls Names simply mine an old sound that music journalists of a certain era might be fond of, and the band takes the material of a period and hones it to a fine point. Listening to The New Life is like revisiting 1982 all over again in many respects. This is both a commendation and condemnation of the album – how much you enjoy it will largely depend on how many Joy Division albums you have in your record collection. If the answer’s none, and you happen to boast of owning the single to Katrina and the Waves’s “Walking on Sunshine”, you may want to consider taking a pass on this one. And, aside from the Gothic touches, The New Life borders on new wave at times. There’s a breakdown in the middle of “A Second Skin” that feels like a more glacial reading of “I Ran (So Far Away)” by A Flock of Seagulls. And “Occultation” sounds a little like an early Psychedelic Furs song, just without the sax. So there’s a lot more going on with The New Life than sour textures that mope. That alone makes the long player an interesting investment.
But the thing is this: can an album sustain its momentum when the songs are generally played at subtle differences in tempo and guitar textures? The answer is both yes and no. The New Life earns points for being remarkably consistent, and there’s a palpable feeling of dark atmosphere to be had here, but, to these ears, these 10 songs seem to be eerily similar to each other with just slight changes in conviction. OK, you might say, you have the album and feel there are differences between the songs and there’s a range of differentiating emotion happening here, and you just have to pay close attention and be rewarded with the palette of sounds employed on the record. This may be true, and there are fireworks that occur within each individual track – “Occultation” even jostles itself out of its dirge state for a bit of jauntiness at the end of the song. So, certainly, there’s a wide range of stuff at work and play with The New Life. But I’d be damned for not feeling that each song presented here is the. Exact. Same. Thing. Rewritten. Over. And. Over. Maybe that’s just the fact that the album cribs from pop past so successfully, and I certainly heard enough of this type of material in my youth to the point where I could probably quote you the entire lyrics sheet to Pornography (OK, maybe not quite, but the sentiment is there), but you listen to this record and wonder about the repetition, if not the feeling of “been there, done that”.
Still, The New Life is a great record if you wear black eyeliner and white paste on your face, and are not a girl. And if you’re a cutter, you might find great appreciation playing the record late at night while suicidal thoughts dance around your head. Granted, the record is not an entire retread of mope rock, and there are some brilliant individual moments to be had – I love how the title track is extended to seven and a half minutes and a repetitive guitar line is played while feedback-y tones are overlaid on top of it. However, The New Life seems like a move from a band that was uncomfortable with its sound, and wanted to try something both new (in the band’s terms) and old (in terms of the album’s sonics). Thus, Girls Names are still searching for an identity and it’ll be interesting to see if the group mines even darker territory on future releases, as the Cure did, before taking a turn back towards sunshiny, anthemic stadium pop, as the Cure did. Borrowing from one’s forbearers is not a bad thing, necessarily, and The New Life offers its share of thrills to those wistfully nostalgic for a type of music that isn’t readily made much anymore. But its appeal may be limited to those outlined directly above or those ready to relive the past, which is partially a shame, because Girls Names have offered something interesting by taking a sharp stylistic twist with the turn of a knife. The New Life might breathe just that into this band. Yet, one is just hopeful that the members stop reading their own press and forge their own true identity, of which The New Life offers baby steps towards. Girls Names haven’t quite gotten there quite yet, but it’ll be better to render further judgment until the group has a few more albums under its belt. The New Life is enjoyable, and there are times when I listen to it and quite like it. Very much. It’s just hardly groundbreaking, which leaves us with retro-nostalgia for things that the listening to Real McCoy would better serve. Or, as Better Than Ezra (a shoddy band to quote, I know, but bear with me) put it rather succinctly: “Wrap yourself in black / Listen to the Cure”.