Horsegirl – Versions of Modern Performance
Before indie rock or alternative, there was “college rock.” A catch-all for the underground by any other name, in the ’80s it served as a blanket term for the bands heard left of the dial on university radio stations, post-punk offshoots and new wave weirdos that hadn’t established a foothold on mainstream FM playlists. It might mean Sonic Youth or Throwing Muses, R.E.M. or The Replacements—bands championed by zines and heralded in the banter of 20-year-old DJs in the making, their names scrawled in ballpoint pen on the J-card of a 90-minute Maxell. By virtue of being “college” rock, it evoked something more highbrow or elitist than Top 40, but more than that, the sounds of guitars in alternate tunings, chords other than major or minor and narratives about geopolitics or dadaism simply spoke to a kind of coming-of-age experience in transcending the familiar, of exposure and discovery.
Chicago’s Horsegirl play music that, in another time, probably would have been commonly understood as being “college rock”—fuzzy but enchanting rock music with unexpected structures and changes, subtle hooks and shape-shifting melodies, played by young women who actually are in college (and one who will be this fall). And true to a long line of American independents from which they descend, the trio’s debut album, Versions of Modern Performance, checks off a lot of familiar boxes: Produced by John Agnello (Kurt Vile, Sonic Youth, Jawbox), recorded at Electrical Audio (lots and lots of bands), and released via Matador Records. If it seems like I’m dancing around the suggestion that Horsegirl are likely to be your favorite new indie band, I’ll just go ahead and say it. They are.
Horsegirl aren’t driven by nostalgia, however. Practically speaking, they couldn’t be; Nora Cheng, Penelope Lowenstein and Gigi Reece were all born after the year that punk broke. Part of a new scene of young bands in Chicago that began playing shows together and publishing zines as teenagers, Horsegirl offer a new perspective on a kind of buzzing, eclectic underground rock sound that never really ages. In fact, their debut album’s standout first single, “Billy,” arrived shortly after Reece and Cheng graduated high school, yet carries the sophistication and confidence of a veteran band, Cheng and Lowenstein’s voices intersecting and overlapping in contrasting harmony against a distorted melody worthy of vintage Yo La Tengo.
Horsegirl describe Versions of Modern Performance as a “bare bones album,” though that’s really a matter of perspective. There’s a certain taut, post-punk minimalism to standout moments like leadoff track “Anti-glory,” but as Cheng and Lowenstein’s criss-crossing vocals give way to a staccato, Gang of Four-like chorus of “Dance/Dance/Dance with me,” the group seem to have no shortage of inspired ideas, no matter how exclusive the personnel. Their looser, shoegazey approach on “Beautiful Song” finds volume within its use of space, while “Dirtbag Transformation (Still Dirty)” finds a delayed payoff in its laid-back surf riffs as the group reaches a climax of wordless harmony. When Horsegirl do lean on more overt influences of bands that came before them, it tends to come out in clever ways, as Lowenstein nods to Gang of Four again in “World of Pots and Pans,” singing, “Sometimes I’m thinking that I lust you, but I know it’s only love.”
Through the 12 songs and instrumental interludes on Versions of Modern Performance, Horsegirl show a great affection for a certain vintage of left-field, playfully outside-the-mainstream North American rock. Even beyond that, though, the kind of joyous sound that three best friends can make together—and the community that comes with that—just isn’t something you can fake, and here, that joy is infectious. In the liner notes, the group says simply, “We love our friends and their bands,” and it’s a pleasure to hear rock music—indie rock music, no less—made without a whiff of cynicism.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.