Polaris Hall, Portland, OR
Awash in magenta and teal lighting, stage framed by bunting and pleated velvet drapes, North Portland’s Polaris Hall seemed more ready for a middle school semi-formal or some neighborhood dance from any point in the venue’s 100+ year history than a rock ‘n’ roll concert. The thrumming, vibrating audience packing the former North Star Ballroom got a little bit of both for Horsegirl’s first show in Portland as the Chicago trio’s razor-sharp, whip-quick set radiated innocence, wholesomeness and fun while still sparking with rock ‘n’ roll rebellion.
Horsegirl are a young trio from Chicago playing a unique and irresistible mixture of ’90s indie, shoegaze/dream pop, and various strains of late ’70s/early ’80s art-punk – mostly the disco punk of Gang of Four; the steely minimalism of post-punk; and the fiery freneticism of no wave. It’s like they come from some alternate timeline where ’60s bubblegum pop like The Archies was as popular and as relevant as The Beatles; where ’90s alt-rock like Liz Phair was as influential as Nirvana; where the Talking Heads never went mainstream and New Wave never settled down to become simply “pop music + synths.” It’s a beautiful cat’s cradle of noisy dissonance and youthful fun.
The trio of Nora Cheng (guitar/bass/vocals), Penelope Lowenstein (guitar/bass/vocals) and Gigi Reece (drums) are one of 2022’s biggest breakouts and runaway success stories. Their debut LP on Matador Records, Versions of Modern Performance, has been receiving ecstatic reviews wherever it lands (as well it should, it’s bloody excellent! You can read our review over here). People are obviously listening and paying attention, as numerous numbers from Modern Performance, which made up nearly their entire set as it’s their only album so far, were clear fan favorites, raising appreciate whoops and rapturous applause when the sonic din settled.
Bands trading in sounds influenced by shoegaze/noise pop generally have two choices when it comes to translating their washed-out wall-of-sound to the stage. They can either go with My Bloody Valentine maximalism and lean into the thought-pulverizing power of extreme volume or they can clean up their act, adapting their songs into a leaner, cleaner style and limiting their sonic mangling to whatever they can carry on their pedalboard. Horsegirl chose neither. Instead, they recreated their distinctive sheets of sound style heard on the record almost precisely on stage, making for a uniquely dreamy sound. Call it dream pop, not as in Cocteau Twins-style “run everything through a flanger pedal and see what happens” but, instead, pop music as heard in a dream, where you can’t read the writing on the wall, where everything seems strange and distorted yet weirdly familiar.
Droney dream pop runs the risk of becoming boring when translated into a live setting. This was decidedly not the case with Horsegirl, largely thanks to Reece’s powerful drumming. They never quit, filling the lulls between songs when instruments are swapped and tuned with “Toad”-worthy drum solos as well as Horsegirl’s dreamy, noisy indie rock with every polyrhythm known to sheet music. It gives their music a powerful percussive thrust that prevents things from ever getting too samey. Now that James Brown is no longer with us, they might deserve a nomination as the hardest working people in show business.
Horsegirl are reviving a particular brand of ’90s guitar-based indie rock that feels like a breath of fresh air. Their often-layered vocals, both live and on record, are more murmured and indistinct than shouty and anthemic. Their melodies seem to float and drift, serving more as open-ended questions or a litany of non sequiturs than something you’d hear from The Shirelles. It’s a reminder of a time when indie music meant more than just some hashtag on TikTok or Instagram. Paired with this year’s Pavement reunion tour, perhaps we’ll get the lo-fi slacker redux we so richly deserve.
This packed show in the cozy interior of a 1920’s ballroom on a Sunday evening felt both thrilling and chill. On one hand, seeing Horsegirl brings to mind the youthful thrill of heading out to see your new favorite discovery, obsessing over their albums for days and weeks ahead of time, getting decked out in your cutest finery, pre-gaming and then headed out with your posse. On the other, it felt like just a nice night out listening to some awesome tunes. For those of us who live and breathe music, it’s not at all uncommon to just go out and see what happens. Watching Horsegirl enrapture an audience in a glamorous old ballroom felt like the best possible thing to be doing with a Sunday evening. And had you been hearing Horsegirl for the first time at Polaris Hall, you’d no doubt be instantly obsessed.
Photo: Cheryl Dunn