Genre: Indie Rock
Favorite Tracks: “Where You Sink,” “Chemical Freeze,” “What Chaos Is Imaginary”
On first and second listens, the latest release, and third full-length album, by Los Angeles indie rock duo Girlpool seems somewhat unadventurous. This isn’t to say that WHAT CHAOS IS IMAGINARY doesn’t have immediately apparent strengths: the songwriting of members Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad is earnest and open, and the songs are well-produced and structured from the start. The issue, at least at first, is simply a lack of sonic exploration. One could be forgiven for taking a preliminary run through this record and drawing the conclusion that it’s little more than another solid but unremarkable release in the alt-rock and indie rock canon.
However, after giving WHAT CHAOS IS IMAGINARY more than just a few listens to marinate and settle into my head a bit, I’m pleased to be able to report that although the record does still suffer from “I’ve Heard This Before Syndrome,” it possesses a number of subtle intricacies that take the listening experience up a notch or two. One of the most notable changes to Girlpool’s sound from their last two records is not just a musical one, but a significant personal one for the band itself. Since the release of their 2017 album, POWERPLANT, Cleo Tucker, who serves as the primary guitarist of the band, has transitioned and begun hormone replacement therapy. The testosterone has taken their voice from the original prior range down into a tenor, creating a vocal contrast between them and Tividad that did not exist on their previous records—a positive development for the duo’s sound, allowing their trading off of lead vocals to become a more significant occurrence, providing a bit more variety from song to song than their projects have had in the past.
Tucker’s change of vocal range not only creates a bit more diversity throughout ON WHAT CHAOS IS IMAGINARY, but it also helps to make more apparent and bring to the surface some of the band’s more interesting influences. At times, Tucker and Tividad combine on harmonies that summon forth mental images of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon. On some of the Tividad-led tracks, they manage to channel some vintage Cocteau Twins, evoking an old-school dream pop vibe that relies on heavy doses of reverb and meandering vocal melodies. The added heft that Tucker is now able to bring to the vocal layering on these songs only helps to create a more solid mix, perhaps allowing Girlpool to bring their songs down from the more wispy and thin material found on their previous records, creating a more grounded and physical sound.
The album’s opening track, “Lucy’s,” makes the Sonic Youth influence immediately and abundantly clear, featuring similar two-part harmonies and layering of electric guitars. It also features a constant and unchanging drum part that adds an element of ominous drone to the track, a staple of bands like The Velvet Underground that is skillfully employed here. “Stale Device” and “Where You Sink” are both Tividad-led songs, with the former almost serving as a sort of prelude for the latter, both songs featuring a similar vibe and direction but the second one featuring a more ambitious palette of sound, with more distortion bleeding over the edges and an unorthodox drum sound that’s difficult to place as either organic or synthetic.
One thing that stands out after these first three tracks is the slowness and care with which Girlpool works through their material. This is not a band that makes particularly hard or fast songs; their material is soft-spoken and deliberative, almost meditative at times. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t songs here that play more as traditional rock. The fourth song, “Hire,” is alternative rock through and through, almost sounding like a Built To Spill outtake. “Pretty,” which follows it, is similar in tone. But even these tracks are not particularly driving, opting for a more placid pace than many of their contemporaries might.
At times the instinct for more plodding tempos works in their favor, as it does on what is probably my favorite track on the album, “Chemical Freeze.” Highlighted by a dark and compelling guitar lead from Tucker and an inventive use of a drum machine, the song feels almost totally distinct from the rest of the album, a more futuristic and forward-thinking track than the band provides anywhere else—it makes some of what follows, like “All Blacked Out” and “Minute In Your Mind,” feel like inferior variations on the theme that came before. The second half of the album has its highlights as well: “Lucky Joke” features a stop-and-go riff that feels uniquely groovy compared to much of the record, and the title track, “What Chaos Is Imaginary,” contains some very interesting decisions involving synthesizers and string patches that lead to another unique and emotional listening experience.
My feelings on this album are mixed. The more I listen to it, the more I want to like it. The evident deep chemistry between Tucker and Tividad is charming to hear, and their earnest attempts at musical growth and development are, by all means, present and accounted for. But as much as I want to love this record, it is frustratingly difficult to really find and highlight its finer points. More and more I find myself drawn to elements and components of these songs that, while interesting and well-executed, are undeniably derivative. The closer, “Roses,” is an excellent and wonderfully atmospheric track that also sounds borderline bitten from Slowdive’s SOUVLAKI. As delightful as it is to hear a band taking cues from a group as deservedly legendary as Sonic Youth, they often fail to do enough to truly make those sounds unique and new. All too often I find myself checking to see which song I’m on as they often bleed together and fail to stand out on their own; the subtleties of their approach are sometimes too subtle. This is a pair of individuals with legitimate talent and a vision for perhaps something truly great somewhere down the road of their hopefully long and fruitful careers. WHAT CHAOS IS IMAGINARY has plenty of legitimate highlights and a few tracks that I think are easily among the best in the Girlpool catalogue. Unfortunately, it also ultimately fails to come together into a particularly gripping listening experience, instead providing flashes of brilliance surrounded by frustratingly familiar and often monotone material. There is greatness to be found here, but for now we can only hope that they will more consistently harness it next time.