Horsegirl 2022
Photo: Cheryl Dunn / Courtesy of Pitch Perfect PR

Horsegirl’s Enticing Guitar Noise Could Use a Little More Songwriting

Horsegirl’s guitar tones are alternately cool and abrasive, and that sound sets the template for the band’s mixture of indie, punk, and art-rock.

Versions of Modern Performance
3 June 2022

The three young women who comprise Horsegirl have crafted a debut album full of personality. Nora Cheng and Penelope Lowenstein’s guitar tones are alternately cool and abrasive, and that sound sets the template for the band’s mixture of indie, punk, and art-rock. Drummer Gigi Reece mostly keeps the songs together while still putting in plenty of her own style. There’s a lot to admire about Versions of Modern Performance, but it’s easier to admire the album than to enjoy it.

“Anti-Glory” begins with a steady, simple beat and an interlocking guitar and bassline. Cheng starts singing in a low voice, accompanied by Lowenstein’s higher backing vocals. Cheng’s somewhat monotone vocals seem low in the mix, but with Lowenstein also there, it makes for a pleasing sonic combination even if it’s difficult to make out the lyrics. At the 1:15 mark, where the chorus would normally be, the song unexpectedly changes feel, operating more like a bridge. Sharp stabs of guitar line up with Cheng declaring, “Dance! / Dance! / With me.” Following this, Horsegirl return to the original groove, Cheng sings another verse and the trio jam out the song’s final minute on the main theme.

“Anti-Glory” is a good example of what it sounds like when Horsegirl fully succeeds. There’s a lot of character in the guitar and basslines and the vocals provide a solid core. That doesn’t happen every time out. The second track features Lowenstein on lead vocals with a singsongy melody. It’s a decent melody, but the singing is again low in the mix, diverting the listener’s attention to the instruments. The guitars, though, are strictly in accompaniment mode this time, without much of a riff to center the track. With the melody drifting into background noise and the guitars not picking up the slack, “Beautiful Song” feels like a bland instrumental rock track.

There are several other songs where the trio gets the balance right. “Dirtbag Transformation (Still Dirty)” has expressive guitar riffing of the Dinosaur, Jr. variety, with a strong drum performance by Reece. The vocals are low in the mix, as always, but with the big guitar hooks, the singing is not forced to carry the melody by itself. “Option 8” has a fuzzed-out, mid-’90s vibe, making its monotone vocals work well. It helps that the track has equally strong verses and choruses and a solid guitar solo, to boot. “World of Pots and Pans” goes for a slightly poppier vibe and lets the singing be front and center in the mix. The biggest guitar moments come when there aren’t any vocals; this is a savvy arrangement choice.

“Homage to Birdnoculars” has a pretty strong accompanying guitar riff and a decent vocal hook, at least at first. But that hook, “Fall into my / Wormhole”, is repeated many times with zero variations, and it quickly ceases to be effective. In the back half, the guitar shifts to be an even more interesting accompaniment. This accompaniment is wasted, though, as there is no melody with the song splitting its time between spoken word vocals and fully instrumental.  “Live and Ski” takes a different tack, with interesting harmonized singing in the first minute that fades into an instrumental jam in the second minute.

Speaking of jams, there are several tracks here that are fully instrumental. “Bog Bog 1” is a couple of minutes of slow, reverbed guitars echoing and bouncing off of each other. “Electrolocation 2” is more of the same, except the guitars are in a higher register and more squalling. Oh, and Reece gets involved with some light cymbal tapping. “The Fall of Horsegirl” isn’t technically instrumental, but it might as well be. Cheng does some near-chanting in the first minute and later slowly counts to six, but the bass and drums groove is the star of this show. The guitar noise squalling over the top keeps the song interesting. Finally, “The Guitar is Dead 3” is 50 seconds of pretty piano plunking that serves as a nice interlude near the end of the record.

Horsegirl are very good at creating atmosphere. The best moments in Visions of Modern Performance come when the atmosphere merges with strong songwriting. The record sags whenever the songwriting does, though. Horsegirl’s biggest issue is that Lowenstein and Cheng often only seem marginally interested in singing. Sometimes their vocal melodies aren’t particularly strong. Yet those songs seem to be written to have the vocals at their center. Instead, they end up as tracks with really solid rhythmic backing, interesting guitar playing, and a sort of void where the song’s primary focus should be. The good moments here are worth lauding, but the trio could use a few more of them.

RATING 6 / 10