Once in a blue moon a movement kicks up on the scene that makes a big fuss over the way an artist’s music finds its way to the listener’s eardrums. Remember the 4-track hullabaloo in the 90s? Didn’t matter if the music was the most god awful shit ever produced–if it was churned out on one of those cheap Aiwa 4-track recorders, then it deserved a listen. Now finally the twenty-first century has its own trend: cassette rock! Fashions of this sort can be fairly hit-or-miss. If the bands’ style of delivery doesn’t mesh with the style of production, the whole approach can come off as a misfire. Do you really want to hear Dark Side of the Moon redone on four tracks? Or how about Leadbelly in a twenty million dollar studio? If the shoe doesn’t fit, you can’t wear it. Luckily for Girlfriends the shoe fits just right. There is something about the cheeky, cheapo fun of tapes that captures their approach perfectly. There is a cream to every crop, and cassette rock may have found its very first keeper in Girlfriends.
The band out of Boston wastes no time on stylistic curlicues in their compositions. Fuzzed-out, stomp-boxed 60s power pop melodies grab you in the first few seconds and don’t let go. The songs are short, direct, noisy- and that’s exactly how the trio of Ben Potrykus (guitar), Jen Dowty (bass) and Andy Sadoway (drums) like it. Their first EP Our Very First Cassette, released late 2009, was a quick and dirty romp that got solid reviews from critics and tastemakers. Though the band’s approach sounds simple, there’s a complexity bubbling beneath the surface that holds your attention. The jagged guitar lines and off-the-cuff vocals are tossed off like the mad strokes of an action painter in full frenzy, while remaining confined within pop art superstructures. Imagine Jackson Pollack, drunk on corn whiskey, trying to copy Warhol’s soup cans: a superlative mess that nonetheless attains a certain iterative fascination. Girlfriends took a similar tack on the EP, trading on the listener’s familiarity with certain pop forms to introduce a decidedly unfamiliar savagery into the proceedings. The song “suckin rare meat off the bone white china” mixes whammied guitar, megaphone vocals, and some rough Beach Boys’ harmonies into a beastly surf safari. “bites + scratches” captures Girlfriends in a more reflective, Pogues-mode, attempting to muster up a mood of good old-fashioned heartbreak. It’s a great song, but the heartbreak isn’t entirely persuasive. The riffs are just too damn fun to frown over.
The ease with which Girlfriends traverses the pop register is a testament to their origins out of the roiling, moiling cauldron that is the Boston music scene. Discount booze and college kids aplenty keep the clubs filled while the insane 1am closing time of the subway preserves a niche for late night DIY house parties. The give and take between public and private forums sustains an occasionally inspired dialectic within the scene. “2004 was a formative year for me,” as Potrykus recalls, “cos I started living in the city in late 2003 and I saw and met Clickers and Night Rally and the Faux and the Mules and Dreamhouse and Neptune, and now Denial and, I think, Wildildlife (they were just ‘Wildlife’ then) and everyone was being really loud and noisy and splitting their time between basements and clubs, which I thought made things a lot more interesting.” That’s quite a list of bands; but what artist can resist the louche allure of down-and-out of bohemian Boston, of Jamaica Plains, of Allston “Rock City,” of Cambridge and Somerville? Breeding grounds, one and all, for raunchy rawk and fine purveyors (according to Potrykus) of “authentic south American food,” “organic fair trade markets,” “thrift stores” and “all that crap.” When Potrykus, Dowty and Sadoway aren’t shopping for ethically-reared beef to mix into their picadinho de milho, the band members find time for other projects including Christians & Lions and Magma Divers- that’s a pretty full plate.
For their A-side, Girlfriends chose “Good To Be True” from their first EP Our Very First Cassette. It’s a straightforward Ramones-style ballad that has lived a few lives since the band recorded it late in 2009. On the first edition of the cassette, “Good To Be True” starred an as-yet-unidentified “space alien laser” solo and might have been recorded in a shoebox. In the words of Sadoway, “Tapes sound like shit usually, am I right?” For the Ampeater 7-inch, Girlfriends gave the song a quick spitshine: bulking up the vocals, balancing the mix, and generally bringing the track up to the strenuous standards of a self-proclaimed “garbage power trio.” While the “space alien laser” solo gets more or less dropped (you’ll have to see the live show for that, or dig up a first edition cassette somewhere) the crisper mix targets two elements that makes Girlfriends great: sing along lyrics and simple song structures. The lyrics of “Good To Be True” describe a downer narrative of teenage emotional insecurity, but the words are set to a bouncy, jangly riff that is so catchy it’s impossible to brood.
The good vibes continue on the B-side with a cover of the Vaselines’ “The Day I Was a Horse.” Clocking in at a trim 1:39, the cover satisfies the band’s appetite and predilection for the short form. In fact, their longest song appears to be “I Was Here But I Disappear” (3:22) from the EP. Commenting on the short form, Potrykus remarks, “…so many good bands and people are into writing shorter songs again too- which I really like. Good two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half minute songs are hard to beat sometimes.” One notable master of the short form, the recently-passed Jay Reatard, appeared to be on the verge of reintroducing the mainstream to the unique possibilities of the short, sweet and simple. Whether brevity makes a comeback will depend on bands like Girlfriends reaching back to a time before bloated Bjorkestras became the apple of every indie musician’s eye. Seriously, how much time is required to relate the absurdity of “the day I was a horse” ? Even the Metamorphosis was a short story.
With the release of the second edition of their debut EP, Girlfriends has shown the beaten-up, old cassette format still holds some intrigue. Whether this heralds a triumphant return to the cassette in general (don’t hold your breath) remains to be seen. The irony is, of course, that the Ampeater Review is releasing “Good To Be True” and “The Day I Was a Horse” as digital pantomimes of a vinyl 7-inch. The world is topsy turvy with different ways to listen to music. The appeal of one specific format appears to be the same appeal of music subgenres: a sense of community, a sense of belonging, a sense of whatever-let’s-party.
There’s a slew of bands that have recently released work in the cassette format, like Quilt and Truman Peyote, and a ton more that are percolating within the same scene, including Kid Romance, Thick Shakes, Earthquake Party!, Young Adults, Maine Coons, and more. These are bands that play all different types of music- garage, electronic, folk, psychedelia- so there doesn’t seem to be any coherent movement afoot. But one trait they do share is that they’re all putting together exciting new music that merits attention: really, what more could you ask for?
Good To Be True
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem075/01 Good To Be True.mp3
The Day I Was a Horse
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem075/02 The Day I Was a Horse.mp3