This past June, Girl Band played a handful of shows in Brooklyn. Among those, when they opened the first of Viet Cong’s two-night stand at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, singer Dara Kiely came out in a loose fitting tie-dye T-shirt, projecting a youthful psychedelic dabbler. The following afternoon, playing under the summer sun in the middle of Bedford Ave. as the TBA act on the Northside Festival’s UO Live Stage, Kiely went with a skinny black Backstreet Boys t-shirt (and really, in 2015, only a member of Girl Band could get away with wearing a vintage boy band shirt). Later that month, back in the same square mile, this time headlining a Thursday night at Rough Trade, Kiely donned an unflashy button-up and slacks, forgoing pretty much any pretense of a rock ‘n’ roll image.
Kiely’s varied self-presentation felt like an outward expression of where the Dublin noise rock group has positioned themselves creatively. Even with this, their first full length, now cast in plastic and out there in the world to define what it is they do, they have nonetheless managed to leave at least a few different doors open to escape from. Not only do Girl Band evade easy definition, they come across as if the very notion of being slotted into an pre-established marketing category makes them physically uncomfortable. Were the antagonistic allure of Holding Hands with Jamie too easily summed up in words, it would probably give them a rash.
If Girl Band hadn’t so concisely laid out their strengths with early tracks “Lawman” and their all-conquering cover of Blawan’s “Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage” — both collected on the brief The Early Years EP this past spring — there might not have been the same compulsion to convolute before they had fully cemented a sound. Still, though they have elicited a few understandable comparisons to early Liars, Holding Hands with Jamie isn’t their They Were Wrong, So We Drowned. Nor is it their They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top. There is no bigger wave beyond their own that Girl Band are riding on which they need to be wary of swallowing them up.
The indie realm has had a more porous proximity to whatever qualifies as mainstream in this decade more so than at any time in recent memory. That kind of supposed ‘anything can happen’ climate might encourage some artists to nurture unique visions, but it also seems to have led to a lot musicians taking the safe route under the guise of ambition. There can only be so many Chvrches, even if it doesn’t seem like that at the present moment. On the other hand, the supply of don’t-try-hard jangle rock has got to start running thin at some point as well. Off to the side of both, Girl Band are out on their limb. The album’s chosen first single, “Paul”, which at seven minutes sustains a video that is practically a short film, begins by leaving Kiely to deliver his seesawing phrases alone with barely a bass string and a floor tom to support him for well over a minute.
To date, Alan Duggan’s approach to playing guitar has typically been to make it sound like anything but. On “…Garage” it came on like squealing brakes in a ten-car pile-up. Here, “Umbongo” is introduced with an approximation of a distant air raid siren. Duggan and bassist Daniel Fox on “Baloo” sound like an old Skiffle group got wasted one night, grabbed some aluminum baseball bats, and broke into a laundromat for an impromptu jam session. Name a large piece of industrial equipment found in a factory, and chances are Duggan’s guitar playing evokes the sound it makes at some point on Holding Hands with Jamie. Seven of nine tracks in, on the descending dark matter blues of “Texting an Alien”, Duggan finally plays it straight: a few calmly flickering guitar notes start to circle, rendered subversive by every crazy move he pulled before it.
They may have an actual drummer, Adam Faulkner, who sits behind a kit and holds drum sticks and all that, but everyone in Girl Band takes to their instrument like a percussionist. There’s Duggan, of course, but also Fox, whose undulating bass lines swing between stretches and stabs, periodically embellished by bottle necks (or whatever else is handy) accosting the strings. Kiely, meanwhile, is one of the more physical singers out there, though he doesn’t actually move around much on stage. Live, energy seems to channel up from below through his feet, tremoring his frame, escaping via his throat in uncontainable bursts.
Yet Kiely’s fits, for all their air of chaos in places like the shrill spasm of “The Last Riddler”, tend to fall in controlled rhythm with the clamor around him. His lines can land like counterpunches to the kick drum or rattle off like a snare roll. He frequently swings between a tone of dry disaffection and shredding words beyond recognition, but on “Pears For Lunch” it is the seemingly emotional lines that get the blasé delivery (a drawn out “I don’t know what she wants”) while the so-direct-it’s-somehow-abstract “I could eat your pears for lunch” is instilled with fiery purpose. When the penultimate storm of “Fucking Butter” turns on a dime into death disco territory, Kiely is browsing the aisles of a French grocery store, calling out “Petit pois / Petit pois” again and again, before shouting out “Nutella! Nutella!” Call it another arrow of obfuscation in their quiver, to go along with their volleys of distortion.
Girl Band’s priorities can sometimes seem counterintuitive. When it came time to check in to Bow Lane studios in Dublin to make Holding Hands with Jamie, the band took as many as four days to set up all their gear, but then managed to bash out seven of the record’s nine tracks in half that. Their sonic disorder holds together tightly, but there is a nagging ambiguity across the whole. Some of the songs — oddly enough the epics “Paul” and “Fucking Butter”, in particular – stick their landings. Others, like “Baloo” and the icy enveloping scrape of “In Plastic”, just sort of wind down. “The Witch Doctor”, for all its fury, is a bit arbitrary as the album’s finale: it had to end somehow.
If there isn’t much room for trad refinements like conclusive endings in the Girl Band playbook, it doesn’t torment them like it surely does the multitude of would-be Max Martins out there stewing over minor tweaks to the same formula. Holding Hands with Jamie documents four musicians in flux together, their increasing ability to rely on one another allowing them to bother less with outside expectations. If the album felt too complete, they wouldn’t be taking enough chances.