Photo: Alice Baxley

Girlpool: Before the World Was Big

Before the World Was Big is ready to comfort you on the road ahead, in so doing becoming the sound of growing up.
Before the World Was Big

Girlpool’s debut is the sound of young hearts crossing the shaky walkway that runs between childhood and adulthood, from the warm, womblike security of the family nest to the bright lights, fast nights, and love bites of the big city. It’s a lonely and strange journey over a bridge as well worn and perilous as the one at the end of Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom. It’s a rickety rite of passage rife with mild peril, nervous excitement, and the occasional Thuggee guard.

Ch-ch-changes. Before the World Was Big pines and aches in all the right places. Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad are both now in the twilight of their teens, and their first long-ish player vividly re-enacts the growing pains of finding your place in the world — especially if you don’t quite know what you’re looking for. Insecurity. Responsibility. Curiosity. Conformity. Expectation. Possibility. The short, snapshot vignettes — ten tracks in 25 minutes — and stripped-down directness of the one bass, one guitar with harmonies setup further enhance the sense of flicking through someone’s angst-ridden diaries. It’s always from the heart, straight and uncut, even if sometimes not much appears to be actually happening.

Yes, admittedly the music itself doesn’t venture on so much a fantastical, life-changing journey. Opener “Ideal World” varies little sonically from closer “I Like That You Can See It”, or much in between. There’s doleful bass, ragged guitar, and a sense of wistful melancholy and childlike loneliness akin to strolling slowly through the park in late August. Sunshine-kissed guitar melodies peer occasionally through the overhanging trees. Before the World Was Big is blissfully happy-sad, ringing with echoes of early Tegan and Sara, Juliana Hatfield, and the more introspective backstreets of Liz Phair‘s Exile on Guyville. It’s also reminiscent of the daydreaming misfits Adrienne Shelly played in Hal Hartley’s early films. It’s a little world yet it draws you in. “Tranquillize me with your ideal world”, it dares.

The first, more cautious, half of Before the World Was Big drops like tear-stained postcards written on the first bus out of town. The whispery, sleepy-eyed “Dear Nora” is Simon & Garfunkel sepia soft; under a silvery moon the strangest memories of afternoons with friends return, “Swimming in Seattle” where “My toes sunk in the squishy ground below”. The broken-hearted valentine of “Chinatown” serenades like MTV Unplugged R.E.M. wrestling desperately with a burning desire to connect: “If I told you I loved you would you take it the wrong way?”. Its romantic ball of confusion, isolation, and longing stings both painful and true. “I am nervous for tomorrow and today” it confides with gentle sway.

The intricate acoustics of “Cherry Picking” feel equally abandoned, albeit more resigned to its fate wilfully driving into a self-fulfilling prophecy of car crash hearts. “I have a hard time staying clean”, it glimmers mischievously. The Big bus passes the old schoolyard evoking happier times though on the charmingly chirpy title track. There’s nostalgia for days gone, but a lovebuzz for the road ahead as it skips from “Mom and Dad I love you” to “I’m a firetruck… brains like a rolling snowball.”

Luckily it’s easy to run past “Magnifying Glass” — think hyper kindergarten kids high on nougat — as it’s 38 merciful seconds long, and head briskly towards Before the World Was Big‘s more mature second half. The basement Cinderella “Crowded Stranger” is a big prom night pop song in waiting, with its outstretched, illuminated chorus just begging for wild-hearted, “Animal from The Muppets” drums and a boot-on-the-amp facemelter axe solo. “Your lonely is loud!” it cries brilliantly.

The shoulder-to-shoulder “Pretty” and “Emily” are the album’s truest treasures, though. The dreamlike, ambient “Pretty” floats across a starlit beach as the sound of waves kiss the shoreline. A warm but distant church organ hums and glows wrapped in a cotton wool fog. Two lovers meet, together alone. “I could only stare at my feet when you said you felt close to me”. With awkward, shivery hands reaching out, the band swoons “You don’t have to be alone” as fireworks surely light up the night. Then the bright, sweet “Emily” delivers a parting shot of wishful optimism for tomorrow. “I’m still here! Remember me Emily!” it shouts deliriously from the car window as the tail lights fade. After this, the actual closer “I Like That You Can See It” feels more an enigmatic, an ellipsis epilogue akin to Miles sheepishly approaching Maya’s house at the close of Sideways. “Walk up to the front door / Cold sweat and shaky”; it’s an ending that offers an optimistic, “This page is left intentionally blank.”

Before the World Was Big is short but surprisingly sweet. This “free expression” band wear their vulnerability with pride, which proves both genuine and refreshing. There are undeniably times when you wish Before the World Was Big was, well, bigger in sound, and that there was more experimentation and contrast, but this would’ve likely dispelled some of its charm. Ultimately, the album is often that experience where you think nothing’s really happening whilst secretly tiny moments of magic are unfolding, ready to comfort you on the road ahead — just like growing up.

RATING 7 / 10