It’s just the first of many joyful ironies surrounding Giant Drag to find out that listening to the band is nowhere near the colossal downer its name implies. From the first track of the group’s debut LP Hearts and Unicorns—another irony, given its own bubblegum pink pajama party overtones—guitarist/vocalist Annie Hardy and drummer/keyboardist Micah Calabrese set out on a course of challenged perceptions, throwing out platitudes like the disc’s title as if daring the listener to judge it at face value.
On the strength of one EP and a handful of live performances, the duo has been fast-tracked to it-band status with salivatory praise from Spin, NME, and Billboard, comparing them to such indie-rock heavyweights as Nirvana, the Breeders, and My Bloody Valentine. But the My Bloody Valentine comparisons aren’t entirely inept; Hardy has a similar penchant for the full, quavering at the edge of pitch indeterminacy guitar sound that was (and still is) Kevin Shields’ stock in trade. Yet Hardy’s vocals and lyrics are made of more emotionally direct substance; removed from the thick sonic gauze that enshrouds most of My Bloody Valentine’s classic tracks, they give her songs far more direct impact than those of her ascribed influences.
“This Isn’t It”, reprised along with “Cordial Invitation” and “yflmd” from the Lemona EP, is responsible for most of the band’s enthusiastic critical reception—and rightfully so. The song is a pop-perfect gem among gems, sounding—yes, perhaps—like the Breeders, but only if Kim and Kelley Deal had never discovered anything harder than wine coolers. That’s not to say that it lacks edge, but there’s an inherent sweetness in the song—coy, but not innocent—that makes it miraculously sharper, somehow. Even if it were the only worthwhile track on the disc, it would still be difficult to not be impressed with Hardy’s skills.
But Hearts and Unicorns isn’t simply one good single surrounded by filler. The entire record contains a series of mini-revelations cloaked in thick, but never impenetrable layers of sound. Some balance a judicious amount of atmosphere and drive, packed into three-minute blasts of formula-free pop with flippant titles like “Kevin Is Gay”, “High Friends in Places”, and “You’re Full of Shit (Check Out My Sweet Riffs)”—and filled with irreverent kiss-offs to a laundry list of unworthy loser guys. Others, like “Smashing”, rely more on the music than Hardy’s lyrics, built from the simple, yet effective bricks of flanged, chorused, and echoed slide guitar lines.
In addition to her potency as a songwriter, Hardy is not necessarily a flashy guitarist, but rather one with a subtle virtuosity. Like Kevin Shields, she possesses the sort of rhythmic and melodic confidence to construct phased-out pop symphonies like the brooding dirge “My Dick Sux”, the first of three—well, four, counting the final hidden track of loopy studio experimentation—songs that stretch out the band’s pop approach to conclude the disc. Similarly, Calabrese is an ideal foil for Hardy, a drummer who is content to keep the beat and add some keyboard embellishments to flesh out the arrangements only as far as necessary—together, they are a team blessed with impeccable taste.
Yet as good as the songs are on the majority of Hearts and Unicorns, what’s truly frightening is the lasting impression that Giant Drag could do even better next time out. With a tour under their belts and an entire world’s worth of subject matter to write about, Hardy and Calabrese certainly stand to improve upon one of this year’s most exciting debut releases—which, given the odds of creating even one consistently engaging record, might just be the greatest irony of them all.