Question: how much responsibility does a band have to innovate with their sound? Is it enough to make technically-great music, or do you need to make great music that also feels fresh? Indie rock is a strange, arguably conservative genre — while some bands cut their product with something more interesting than the straight-up guitar bands, some of them simply aim to capture the spirit of acts like Sonic Youth, Vivian Girls or Dinosaur Jr., creating interesting music without breaking down barriers or reinventing wheels. Despite the members of Chicago power-trio Horsegirl being under 20-years-old, their debut album, Versions of Modern Performance, makes us ask that question in a completely different way: how much power does aesthetic perfection have to completely replace the need for originality?
Versions of Modern Romance is a perplexing album. Despite the ages of its members, it was produced by John Agnello (who has worked with The Breeders, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Nada Surf, Drive-By Truckers and a whole mess of other excellent names) and features Sonic Youth founding members Steve Shelley and Lee Ranaldo on at least two different songs. If you play this album for a random friend and told them that it was actually an unheard-of indie record from the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, they might completely believe you. Talent can come from anyone at any age but being able to tap into that aesthetic is a feat in itself, one that makes Versions a total success.
But is there anything else going on with the record? Truly, if you’ve heard any of the names mentioned so far, the sound of Horsegirl will totally fail to blow your hair back. The one-two punch of “The Fall of Horsegirl” and “Electrolocation 2” might get you there, as they feel like the most comparatively unconventional rock tunes on Versions, but their combined runtime makes up less than five minutes of the album. Other songs, like opener “Anti-glory” and “World of Pots and Pans,” will wedge themselves in your head, forcing you to contend with their energy on a loop in the back of your brain for days, and it’s entirely possible that you will never be able to rid yourself of “Option 8,” which may be the best song on Versions. The problem begins if you lose sight of Horsegirl themselves, as none of these tracks do much to leave an impression of the band that wrote them.
What helps make Horsegirl feel less like a flash in the pan, and more of a band worth watching beyond Versions, is the fact that they are, in every sense of the term, a power trio. Guitarists Nora Cheng and Penelope Lowenstein and drummer Gigi Reece feel dialed-in with each other, meaning songs like, say, the off-kilter “Live and Ski” feel like they actually work, rather than just being guitar/drum noise. These songs are tight as hell, but feel incredibly loose — which is the mark of musicians who have been playing together for more than 10 years, rather than barely being past their debut record. It’s clear that the trio — who all share songwriting and vocal duties — are a close-knit group, which lends far more authenticity to their sound than any other band simply aping the style of Goo, Bug or Last Splash. Being a power trio is about more than just being three members — it’s about being able to fully trust that the creative instincts of your bandmates is dialed into the same frequency as your own.
Versions is not the most innovative or interesting record of 2022, but it’s one of the most surprisingly exciting ones, by virtue of making you wonder where this band is going to end up on their next record. It’s tempting to dig deep into why it falls of its potential, but at the same time it feels wrong to judge a group of young kids too harshly if they haven’t found their own voice yet. Such criticisms are best saved for that next record. This is a well-oiled creative team, and the fact that they were able to work together to make an album that feels this stylistically-clear is pretty exciting — even if it feels like it leaves something unexplored.