“What Chaos is Imaginary” Shows a Band in Flux

In one of my recent posts, I lamented the way really young artists are disproportionately hyped in the music industry due to novelty. That doesn’t mean I don’t listen to any of them, and one of my favorites in the past few years has been Girlpool, who started out making amateurish, heartfelt songs that were reminiscent of The Shaggs on Before the World Was Big, then evolved into a full-fledged indie rock band on 2017’s Powerplant. They overhauled their sound while maintaining the band’s biggest strength: the genuine connection between Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad, who sang in interlocked harmonies and conveyed authentic, youthful feelings instead of trying to sound older than they are. It made me feel like I was hearing the band grow up and change on every song.

That theme continues on their new album, What Chaos is Imaginary, but in a way that is much more dramatic than I would have expected. Tucker came out as transgender last year and started taking testosterone, which lowered their singing voice. It’s a courageous decision that is way more important than music, and it feels like trivializing it to analyze how it impacts the band. But they did put out a new album with Tucker’s voice on it, and it’s impossible to ignore how it has fundamentally changed the band’s aesthetic — those lockstep feminine harmonies are gone, which is what gave Girlpool their distinct style that reminded me of a musical version of nursery rhymes or “Little Red Riding Hood.”

Not to be too clinical about it, but all of this makes What Chaos is Imaginary fascinating to listen to. It’s not just hearing a band evolve like all of them do from album to album; it’s a band that has lost one instrument and replaced it with a new one. And parts of this album reflect what must have been the difficulty of figuring that out — I think it runs a little too long at 14 songs and 45 minutes and it sounds like they’re trying many different types of songs without a clear idea of what the band should be now, especially compared to the focused and confident sound of Powerplant.

While Tucker and Tividad always sang simultaneously before this, here they settle into more of a traditional lead singer/backing singer dynamic on most songs. The ones where Tucker takes lead are the biggest departures from the band’s previous material; “Lucy’s” and “Hire” show their new voice and are the most traditional indie rock songs the band has made. Tividad’s songs like “Pretty” and “Stale Device” are closer to the familiar Girlpool sound with the harmonies and mix of sweet melodies and abrasiveness. Chunks of the album feel almost too traditional to me — without the unique harmonies of previous material, a lot of this sounds like a normal indie rock band, and I feared the magic from previous recordings may have been lost.

But they find something that really works in the back half of the album. “Minute in Your Mind” and the title track are spacy ballads with keyboards that add an extra layer of psychedelia to the band. On the former track, Tucker’s voice sounds at home in the more subdued mode, and Tividad harmonizes on the back half of the song in a way that is reminiscent of old Girlpool but still inherently different. Tividad takes the lead on “What Chaos is Imaginary,” which adds strings to the mix and is the band’s most ambitious recording yet, with a larger sense of scale than anything they’ve ever done.

The way Tividad and Tucker separate from each other on the album is reminiscent of how tight friendships can fade away or change in meaning year by year. The change here is drastic but it also feels true to life, and there is a lot to like here in the songwriting (which is as soulful and endearing as it’s always been) and the band’s ability to find new sounds and push themselves on every recording. Part of me still is unfairly focusing too much on what was lost and is mourning the old Girlpool sound from Powerplant. But something has also been gained on What Chaos is Imaginary, and it is exciting to think of the future of this collaboration that surprises and evolves with every album.

My Favorite Albums of 2017

I listened to a ton of music this year — mostly to escape the news cycle, but also because the process of writing about it has made me more excited to engage with it, which is why I still do this. I’ve narrowed it down to 15 albums, but I left off a lot of worthwhile music, which I might compile in another post if there’s interest.

One of my main beefs with media year-end lists I see is that they all have this very focus-grouped feeling, where they’re trying to represent every kind of music and appeal to every reader. This is just the music I like (it’s roughly in order of how much I listened to each album), and I don’t make any concessions towards popularity or what I think will necessarily appeal to other people. So I imagine no one on earth will remotely agree with much of this, but I hope at least one of the (mostly underappreciated) albums on this list strikes your fancy.

15. Charlotte Gainsbourg – Rest

I’ll admit to being ignorant of Gainsbourg’s previous work (and I almost missed this album too), but Rest instantly jumped out to me because of its masterful production and dark disco hooks. The occasionally joyous sound somewhat masks that this album was written in a period of grief, and the way Gainsbourg’s lyrics (occasionally in French) clash with the music make this an ambiguous and intriguing album — the kind that makes a joyful chorus out of a Sylvia Plath passage.

 14. Sneaks – It’s a Myth

There are few things harder in music (or life, really) than convincingly being cool, but Sneaks (Eva Moolchan) pulls it off on It’s a Myth because of her effortless charisma. Her deadpan poetry and natural swagger are at the forefront of these economical, minimalist songs that are a seamless fusion of post-punk, funk, and hip-hop.

13. Novella – Change of State

Novella’s lengthy description of Change of State sells it as a political post-Brexit album, but the real appeal here is their sound, a mix of krautrock rhythms with dreamy guitar and vocal harmonies. This band clearly loves Stereolab, and Change of State makes a convincing case for how good taste can lead to good music.

12. Björk – Utopia

The new album by Björk is overwhelming — to the point that it is hard to figure out how to reasonably rank it against other albums. For better or worse, Björk has never felt so distant from contemporary music, and Utopia‘s endless sprawl and the approximately three million things going on in every track make it feel like nothing else this year. While at times indulgent, the album is grounded by Björk’s optimism at a time when that might be even more unusual than her music.

11. Daddy Issues – Deep Dream

The sound of Deep Dream is a pure 90s throwback, with Jenna Moynahan’s grungy riffs contrasting with her light vocals, but Daddy Issues are much more than a tribute band. They bring a different perspective to the grunge genre with emotionally complex lyrics that are equally funny and insightful, using personal experiences to address contemporary gender dynamics and general anxiety. I also find their lack of originality oddly endearing: while so many bands try to be everything at once, Daddy Issues know exactly who they are, and they have the unpretentious, catchy songs to prove it.

10. Kelly Lee Owens – Kelly Lee Owens

After playing bass in the unfortunately-named The History of Apple Pie (a band I liked, for the record), Owens stepped out on her own with this sleek collection of down-tempo minimalist electronic songs. While clearly indebted to trip-hop bands like Massive Attack (“Keep Walking” is mostly a 2017 reboot of “Teardrop”), Owens’ airy vocals differentiate it from her predecessors, and her ear for production makes it one of the year’s smoothest and most addictive albums.

9. Frankie Rose – Cage Tropical

Every year I seem to fall for one of these throwback 80s pop albums. This year’s is by Frankie Rose, who uses shimmering synths and rich bass to craft catchy and subtly emotional songs on Cage Tropical. Like her former bandmate, Kristin Kontrol, Rose has mastered how to create memorable pop songs through her years of experience, and this album feels like the perfection of her synth-pop vision that began on 2012’s Interstellular.

8. Widowspeak – Expect the Best

Molly Hamilton’s crooning vocals and Robert Earl Thomas’ gorgeous shoegaze/country guitar have always made Widowspeak sound warm and cozy. On Expect the Best, they turn their own music against itself, with songs that show how comfort and nostalgia can turn into inertia that makes you feel directionless. While not a huge musical evolution for the band, Hamilton’s lyrics made this connect with me more than any of their previous work.

7.  Palehound – A Place I’ll Always Go

Written after the loss of her grandmother and a close friend, A Place I’ll Always Go is an honest and heartfelt reflection on loss and friendship by Ellen Kempner, who records as Palehound. While her flashy guitar playing tends to steal the show, Kempner’s lyrics provide the emotional base that makes her fuzzed-out riffs more potent. She captures the feeling of emptiness that follows the loss of a friend by offering us a window into her world — even her mundane descriptions of trips to the grocery store or Dunkin’ Donuts are rich with pathos.

6. Chelsea Wolfe – Hiss Spun

After 2015’s massive Abyss, Wolfe plunges even deeper into darkness with Hiss Spun, a thunderous collection of songs that makes most other artists’ attempts at rock music feel inconsequential. Wolfe is a powerhouse vocalist, and her intensity and flair for the dramatic make every song on Hiss Spun feel like a fight for survival. It’s not for the faint of heart, but great rock music rarely is.

5. Girlpool – Powerplant

After the bare-bones minimalism of their debut album, Before the World Was Big, Girlpool enlisted a drummer and embraced a full rock sound on Powerplant, which easily could have been their “sell-out” moment. Instead, it’s like they emerged from a cocoon. The duo of Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker still have their unique chemistry forged from years of friendship, and the collision of noisy guitars with their vulnerable lockstep harmonies is one of the most compelling sounds in music today.

4. EMA – Exile in the Outer Ring

After the election of Trump, journalists penned a seemingly endless amount of portrayals of the American working class in a desperate attempt to figure out how it happened. They could have just listened to Exile in the Outer Ring instead. Drawing from her upbringing in South Dakota, EMA’s provocative third album is a searing portrait of the American heartland that melds her personal experiences with a broader political message. Its grimy industrial/grunge sound, her lyrics and her vocals capture how it feels to be abused and forgotten about — as well as the barely-restrained fury that simmers underneath.

3. Hand Habits – Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void)

When most people think of great guitarists, they focus on artists who draw attention to themselves with their massive riffs and personalities. Meg Duffy, who records as Hand Habits, is a guitar hero for the indoor kids. Their lo-fi bedroom songs are slow-paced and unassuming, matching their low-key personality, but Wildly Idle gradually reveals itself to be an intimate and powerful album, anchored by their beautiful, psychedelic-tinged guitar. It’s like a shy friend who ends up being kind and caring once you get to know them.

2. Cold Beat – Chaos By Invitation

I continue to bang the drum for Cold Beat and its mastermind, Hannah Lew, who has put out a run of three albums that I compare favorably to any other current artist. Never content to stay in one musical place for too long, Lew pushes her project into new synth-driven territory on Chaos By Invitation, but does it while retaining the band’s distinct (yet hard to pin down) sound that somehow feels chilly and warm at the same time. While the switch to synths would seem to indicate a narrow musical path, Lew shows her creativity and versatility as a songwriter by making a collection of memorable songs that all feel different.

1. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – The Kid

I have no idea how Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith does what she does. Her collection of modular synthesizers, with all of their cords, knobs and wires, look like impossibly complex machinery, but in her hands they’re a conduit for music that feels deeply human and in touch with the natural world. Inspired by the four stages of life, The Kid plays as an outline of one person’s existence, beginning with the wide-eyed joy of early childhood discovery, then progressing to the adult process of learning, questioning, and finding your place in the world. Smith’s own journey of exploration is captured in The Kid‘s restless musical experimentation, and all of its quirky tracks build up to one of the most moving, achingly beautiful conclusions to an album I’ve ever heard.

Girlpool – “Powerplant”

The first 50 seconds of Girlpool’s new album, Powerplant, sound exactly like I expect them to. Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker’s whispery voices interlock over soft guitar parts that are similar to their debut effort, Before the World Was Big, which wowed me back in 2015 with its minimalist style that found great power in simplicity. But then something surprising happens in the second part of “123:” a drummer comes in, there’s a loud, soaring chorus and Girlpool evolve in mid-song like a freshly leveled-up Pokemon. Similar to a level 36 Charizard, they’ve grown bigger, stronger, and even learned some new moves.

The decision to add percussion and expand the band’s sound runs an obvious risk: that, by embracing more conventional instrumentation and songcraft, Girlpool will lose what made Before the World Was Big so unique and become just another indie rock band. Tividad and Tucker are keenly aware of this, and much of Powerplant intentionally teeters on the edge of that cliff, only to be brought back to stability by surprising moments that subvert the indie rock form.

The third track, “Corner Store,” has one of those moments. It starts out as a jaunty indie pop song, erupts in a cacophony of noise out of nowhere, then abruptly switches back to the band’s usual sound as if nothing happened. It’s the most obvious example of one of the themes I got out of Before the World Was Big, which is Tucker and Tividad as these vulnerable young voices who are confronting the darkness of the real world in their music. This is emphasized even more on Powerplant, which contrasts their harmonies with noisy guitars and uses quiet/loud dynamics that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Pixies or Nirvana album.

Powerplant ends on two if its strongest tracks: “It Gets More Blue” and “Static Somewhere” both use the quiet/loud concept to full effect with big sing-along choruses and are the culmination of the band’s evolution from Juno soundtrack minimalists into full-blown rock stars. What’s really remarkable is that they pull off this transformation while losing none of what made Before the World Was Big feel so special. The harmonies of the two singers make the band still feel intimate, even when surrounded by much more noise than before.

After one listen to Powerplant, the fear of Girlpool becoming “just another band” was out the window. If anything, embracing the traditional rock style has further illuminated their strengths. There is now an even more subversive element to the band’s music as they play off indie rock tropes, and the use of dynamics helps highlight the unique presence of Tividad and Tucker. Their vulnerability, chemistry and songwriting ability ensure that everything Girlpool does will be original.

#8: Girlpool – “Before the World Was Big”

A cool part of music that I’ve overlooked is how it’s often about group collaboration, and the bonds that develop from working together to create something. When you hear a band’s song, it’s the result of people who (presumably) like each other working together to make music that they believe in. This would be very obvious if I’d ever been in a band, but as a listener I often don’t think about the actual work that goes into these songs, and instead just assume that they like… happen out of nowhere.

Girlpool’s debut album, Before the World Was Big, is what made me start thinking about this. The teen duo of Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker make incredibly simple music, with just guitar, bass, and interlocking vocals. Out of this simplicity comes great power, and there is a sense of deep friendship and connection between the two that is conveyed in the way they write and perform their songs. Before the World Was Big is the sound of two friends making music together in the most direct and honest way they know how.

The sound of Before the World was Big is simple, but its songs are full of nuance and ambiguity. It obviously is from the perspective of two young people, yet it never feels naive. The songs have a darkness running through them as the pair confront the real world and deal with already feeling kind of old while also not really being adults. I could see people saying the pair are “wise beyond their years,” but I actually think part of the album’s power is that they do sound their age — with all the anxieties and feelings that entails — and aren’t afraid to be achingly sincere about it.

Earlier this year, I compared Girlpool to The Shaggs, but they’re also likened to Marine Girls or (often derisively) Kimya Dawson and the Juno soundtrack. But while Girlpool are hardly the first band to come up with the “simple = good” idea, they are the first to be Harmony and Cleo, and it’s their unique point of view and connection with each other that makes this a great album.

The Legacy of The Shaggs

A lot has already been written online about The Shaggs, a band of sisters who released one album, Philosophy of the World, in 1969 that has gained a cult following over the years. Their story gets told frequently because it’s a compelling outsider narrative: their overbearing father, believing they were destined for stardom, put them in a band when they had no knowledge of music, and the resulting album sounded bizarre and alien. Yet, thanks to artists like Frank Zappa who allegedly proclaimed them to be “better than The Beatles,” their music has endured.

Many suspected Zappa was trolling when he praised The Shaggs — that nobody could possibly like music that is so obviously bad. It is easy to assume anyone who likes them only does so in that “so bad it’s good” way, like people who watch Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, where most of the enjoyment comes from pointing and laughing at it. I argue that The Shaggs made actual good music, or at least music that raises interesting questions about what art is and who can make it.

I’d be lying if I said I really loved The Shaggs and listened to them regularly — the truth is, it’s hard for me to really enjoy music that is so lacking in basic rhythm, melody, etc. There is plenty of weird, avant-garde music that consciously rejects those elements, but most of the time it’s by artists who know music very well and are interested in pushing its limits — they know the rules, and thus know how to break them effectively.

The Shaggs are different: they seem entirely oblivious to what music even is, much less the rules that govern it. The result is music that is unique not just in how bizarre and off-kilter it sounds, but in how unguarded it is emotionally. To listen to The Shaggs is to hear music that is entirely free of calculation or pretension. At times, they are painfully innocent, particularly on songs like “My Pal Foot Foot” or “Who Are Parents?” where they earnestly clatter in their unusual way about imaginary friends and the importance of their family. They are so sheltered and naive that it even has a darkness to it, a twisted beauty that makes their music worthwhile and memorable instead of being random noise.

It is hard for human ears to adjust to The Shaggs, which is something that fascinates me in and of itself. When I listen to them, I always end up going very deep into this existential dorm-room logic, where I begin to question everything I thought I knew about music. Because the story that is told is how The Shaggs “couldn’t play music,” but like… what makes music music, man? Why do our brains like to hear rhythm and melodies done in the way that most music is, and not in the way The Shaggs did? Aren’t these all just like… random sounds existing in space and time that we arbitrarily give meaning to? Sometimes after thinking stuff like this long enough, I begin to wonder if The Shaggs are the only band that has ever played music correctly — maybe everyone else has been doing it wrong.

I’m usually able to talk myself off that ledge eventually, but I do think The Shaggs unintentionally predicted a lot of common indie trends that I still hear today. In particular, they’re the most extreme example of a crucial indie idea: that sometimes it’s good for music to have imperfections and flaws. Tons of indie music intentionally sounds rougher and dirtier than major label products as a calculated reaction to the slickness of mainstream music. Sometimes this comes across as a cheap gimmick, especially when it’s only done because a band is trying to sound “authentic,” but it’s something I really like when it’s done naturally. Limitations can often result in more memorable music than all of the studio magic and technical ability in the world.

In that regard, this year’s band that really reminds me of The Shaggs is Girlpool, a duo of teenagers from L.A. who play music that is defined by simplicity. They only have an electric guitar and bass (no drums), and sing interlocking vocal harmonies with each other over basic chords. The title of their album, Before the World Was Big, even sounds a bit Shaggsy, and their lyrics naturally reflect a youthful (yet smart) view of the world. Before the World Was Big doesn’t reach the subversive insanity of Philosophy of the World, but it’s similarly powerful because of how restricted it is — it’s interesting to listen to music that is so boiled down to its basic parts.

To give Girlpool credit, they have real technical ability, which The Shaggs did not. But I hear a lot of the same themes in their music, especially the tension between youthful innocence and encountering the darkness of the real world.  The limitations in Girlpool’s music feel vital and genuine because it supports those ideas — a lot of what makes their music special would be lost if it was slickly produced with a full band set-up. It’s a delicate act to pull off because it can so easily sound contrived, yet Before the World Was Big never does. In fact, it’s hard to imagine it being presented in any other way — just like it’s hard to imagine highly trained musicians making an album like Philosophy of the World.

I think that is the essence of the “better than the Beatles” thing. The traditional view on this as that The Beatles were immensely talented and The Shaggs could never hope to approximate their music in any way — which is true. But this can also be flipped: The Beatles were too good, knew music too well, to ever in a million years make an album like Philosophy of the World, even with infinite resources. If that doesn’t take talent, I don’t know what does.