Versions of Modern Performance

Collectively, the members of Horsegirl are probably 20 years younger than their most recent influence. Gigi Reece and Nora Cheng are college freshmen, Penelope Lowenstein a high school senior, but Versions of Modern Performance glows with the drowsy heat of 30 years’ worth of indie rock. Depending on your age, you might hear Yo La Tengo or Stereolab in the featherlight vocals; maybe the fat, crayon-streaked guitars of Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis or Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch. The longer you listen, the more the album resembles a hedge maze made from familiar references—the yawn of the whammy bar on “Bog Bog 1” swirls in some My Bloody Valentine, while Cheng’s bird call of a melody on “Beautiful Song” evokes Laetitia Sadier. If a group of young people picked up some guitars to make a blurry, pleasing sound at any point in the past seven presidential administrations, you’ll hear echoes of them here.

Horsegirl are breakout members of a largely teenaged Chicago indie scene, and their debut comes decked with auspicious cosigns from scene elders—John Agnello (Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth) is behind the boards, while Steve Shelley and Lee Ranaldo play on “Billy” and “Beautiful Song.” It’s a compliment, then, to say that Versions could have come out in 1997, or 1987, since that’s entirely the point. Indie rock of this era was loose-fitting, and in order to make it work, everyone has to play that way—hugging the downbeat too tight would curdle the vibe, as would an overly busy bassline. The sound has to stretch, like a dog in the sun, otherwise you’re not doing it right. Lowenstein and Cheng, who trade vocal duties alongside guitars and six-string electric bass, manipulate fuzz tones like batted balloons, while Reece hits the cymbals like someone throwing paint buckets at a barn. They’ve got the balance just right—no explosions, just a steady, nervous churn continuously disrupting the music’s placid surface.

This haze offers excellent cloud cover to hide songwriting surprises, and Horsegirl take the opportunity. You might have to listen to “The Fall of Horsegirl” twice to realize the hook is simply Lowenstein counting quietly to six. “Anti-glory” starts rumpled and messy before pulling taut for a chorus in which they simply snap “Dance!” at you, like they’re tossing firecrackers at your feet. “Billy” builds up a good head of steam before speeding up unexpectedly and veering into a corner.

If there are nice surprises throughout on Versions, there are no revelations. From the studied perfection of its guitar tones to the vocals that closely mimic their heroes, Versions is a bit like an apprentice’s masterwork, a demonstration that they’ve absorbed their lessons. The lyrics are fragmentary, open-ended, and occasionally arresting (“I’m on the run from the severed leg of my son,” from “Option 8”). But any capital-S Statements that Horsegirl might make are probably percolating somewhere in that soupy sound, waiting for the right moment—hopefully album two—when they will emerge. For now, Horsegirl aren’t so much carrying the torch as they are keeping the pilot light lit, low and steady.

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Horsegirl: Versions of Modern Performance

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