Horsegirl are best friends. You don’t have to talk to the indie rock trio for more than five minutes to feel the warmth and strength of their bond, which crackles through every second of their debut full-length, Versions of Modern Performance. Penelope Lowenstein (guitar, vocals), Nora Cheng (guitar, vocals), and Gigi Reece (drums) do everything collectively, from songwriting to trading vocal duties and swapping instruments to sound and visual art design. “We made [this album] knowing so fully what we were trying to do,” the band says. “We would never pursue something if one person wasn’t feeling good about it. But also, if someone thought something was good, chances are we all thought it was good.”
It’s not just their intra-band friendship that sustains them, either. Reece and Cheng are college freshmen, and Lowenstein a high school senior. They learned to play—and met—through the significant network of Chicago youth arts programs, and they have their own mini-rock underground, complete with zine distros, that they describe as somewhat separate from the “adult shows” that take place at bars and DIY spaces they don’t have access to. They’re exultant about their friends’ talent, noting that any of the bands from that scene could have been (or might still be!) plucked up the way they were. (You can see some of those friends in the sweetly goofy self-produced video for single “Billy;” their scene takes pride in doing their own visual art, both film and album covers.)
Versions of Modern Performance was recorded with John Agnello (Kurt Vile, The Breeders, Dinosaur Jr.) at Electrical Audio. “It’s our debut bare-bones album in a Chicago institution with a producer who we feel like really respected what we were trying to do,” the band says. Horsegirl expertly play with texture, shape, and shade across the record, showcasing their fondness for improvisation and experimentation. Opener “Anti-glory” is elastic and bright post-punk, while the guitars in instrumental interlude “Bog Bog 1” smear across the song’s canvas like watercolors. “Dirtbag Transformation (Still Dirty)” and “World of Pots and Pans” have rough, blown-out pop charm. “The Fall of Horsegirl” is all sharp edges and dark corners.
One can certainly hear elements of the ‘80s and ‘90s independent music the group loves so deeply and sincerely in their music—the scuzzy melodicism of what used to be called “college rock,” the cool, bubbly space-age sheen of the ‘90s vamps on lounge and noir; the warm, noisy roar of shoegaze; the economical hooks and rhythms of post-punk. There’s even a bit of no wave mixed in for good measure. But as Horsegirl fuses all of this together, it feels not like a pastiche or a hacky retread but something as playful and unique as its predecessors. They’re best understood as part of a continuum, but they’re building something for themselves.
“I think we had conceived of the album as a DIY thing, thinking about playing it live to other kids,” the band says. “In David Byrne’s book, he talks about [how] people write for the space that they think they’re going to—you write it to be played somewhere specific. I think we were thinking of our trio arrangement and being in a lot of basements, not knowing we would have all of these resources to record at Electrical Audio. And so when we went to make the record, it was very important to us to not be too polished.”
With lyrics intentionally impressionistic and open-ended, and a sound that ranges with joy and enthusiasm across a range of styles, knitting them together in fascinating ways, Versions of Modern Performance offers many pathways. It’s a record to get lost in, a record to soundtrack reflective time alone, and a record to put on if you just feel like dancing with your friends around the kitchen.