Big Girl is in no rush. And why should they be? Six fantastically talented musicians bring the debut album to life, and Big Girl vs. GOD gives them all room to breathe. Many of the NYC sextet’s tracks approach—or even surpass—five minutes, and every second is well spent. Lead singer Kaitlin Pelkey’s masterful and purposeful vocals give way to long breaks that allow everything to shine: Crispin Swank’s guitar and Pelkey’s own riffs compliment each other without competing; the drums brilliantly shepherd us through songs that can shift from thoughtful and soft to angry and frenzied in a millisecond; and what better to ground us through it all than the distinct yet cohesive basslines? (Provided by Elizabeth Sullivan on the record and more recently by Nico Astudillo live.) Add backup singers Christina Schwedler and Melody Stolpp to the mix, the whole thing produced alongside Justin Pizzoferrato (who has worked with Pixies, Dinosaur Jr. and Speedy Ortiz), and you’ve got yourself quite a band, relatively big, as their name suggests. But the medley of sounds, minds, and skills is anything but sloppy—they are a force to be reckoned with.
The album’s name suggests something too, and it’s right: there is something holy, reverent, apocalyptic even, about this album, which Pelkey wrote while coping with the loss of her mother. “After the screaming / we are holy divided / holy divided,” goes the first track, “Instructions 2 Say Sorry.” And the fourth tracks, “Summer Sickness,” has the background vocalists crooning like a chorus of angels (or ghosts, or something).
The lyrics are all wonderfully poetic, the kinds that would work just as well in a book or read aloud on poem-in-your-pocket day at school. It’s curiously contradictory, too—a lot of the album is spooky, but cathartic; intimate, but universal. At times the album is melancholic in a Phoebe Bridgers sort of way, and at others it is energetic and invigorating—usually all in the same song. It’s also familiar, but foreign—uncanny almost. Like it feels like it should be bright and cheery, like it’s got all the components of that tone—bright, upbeat guitars, Pelkey’s rosy soprano lilt with even perkier backup. But it’s not. Sometimes it’s the harrowing lyrics (“I hear them echo / the guns and the sirens”), and sometimes it’s a growing hint of rage or grief behind Pelkey’s voice, and sometimes it’s something in the notes, in the guitar solos or the synths in the background.
“Do you like it? / Yeah! It’s like sugar on my teeth,” is the chorus of “Cadillacs,” a radiant bop that isn’t as happy-go-lucky as the backup “la la la”s and Pelkey’s excited, almost manic vocals would lead you to believe. This anti-capitalist diddy is digestibly saccharine—until, that is, Pelkey belts out the words “…makes you wanna scream!” with absolutely masterful control. Then the track (d)evolves into controlled chaos, our candy-coated “la la la”s turning frantic and robotic before fading (floating, it feels like, reverberating out into the ether) away, and some more holy (but grounded, compared to that brief bout of angry chaos) vocals see us off: “It’s so pure to have a dream anymore.”
Maybe it’s because they also released a new song this week, but Be Your Own Pet came to my mind when I was listening to this, specifically their outrageous hit “Becky” that is similarly peppy-yet-furious. But “Cadillacs” is not so silly: it’s a look at the surface versus what’s below it, to me; that smile we put on our faces when we really want to scream because…Well, look around! It’s punk rock in its subject matter, and sort of its whole own thing in genre. One thing is for certain, though: Pelkey is angry, and so am I. After all, sugar rots your teeth…I’d prefer it on my tongue.
And speaking of tongues… “Mother Tongue” is my favorite of the bunch. Super rock ‘n’ roll but also, somehow, like a broadway musical? The lyrics are brilliant: “Sincerely, I’ve always had this vanity inside me / frightening to externalize”; “Make me sleek and clean / feel my touch screen.” It’s an unsettling, far-too-relatable examination of this technological age, of social media and whatever the heck it’s all doing to us, or maybe what it says about us, that was already there.
“Big Car Full Of Mistakes” starts off sounding like the soundtrack to some coming of age adventure movie. A synth in the mix gives us those magical little twinkles and 8-bit chords. Suffocating lyrics make things a little less fantastical, though: “She always had something tight around her neck / some old chain / some new man / some old song she can’t forget.” I saw a fireworks display in Queens recently, and it was structured just like this song: a big frenzied climax near the end followed by a couple bursts of color, and then, just when you think it’s over…one last bang to dazzle you. Pelkey takes us on a journey with each of these songs: not just a beginning and a middle and an end, but an entire feature-length film, it seems, or an epic poem, with trials and tribulations, lows and highs, peace and chaos, comic reliefs and spirals into madness.
The final track, “it’s so pure” is all in lowercase. It also sounds like lowercase. The other five band members take a break as Pelkey whispers over just a piano. Big Girl knows when to bring the chaos, but they also know when to do simplicity. Purity, I guess. The recording is even a little lo-fi, and unlike the rest of the tracks, this one barely hits two minutes. The lyrics are poetic—perhaps the most poetic of them all—simply “It’s so pure to have a dream anymore,” repeated a few times. Wait a sec—haven’t we heard that before? (We have, in “Cadillacs.” The continuity!). Pelkey knows how to say a lot without saying much, which is why the instrumentals have done so much of the talking this whole time. And there’s a lot we can say about purity, about innocence these days when you can’t avoid knowing things. There’s a loneliness here, amplified by the track’s proximity to the rest of them, by its place in an album otherwise filled with so many sounds so elegantly mixed, always something else to focus on each time you listen—each detail, each layer of noise, each frequency seemingly meticulously placed for the very purpose of not leaving us alone with our doom-spiraling thoughts. But now it’s quiet.
This mind-bending, genre-melding, apocalyptically hopeful (or hopefully apocalyptic?) release is a spectacular debut for a powerful, skilled sextet of musicians. Maybe it’s the unbridled power and talent this band seems to have behind their instruments, but there really is a general sort of godliness to all of this, to these big grand songs brimming with all these intricate little details. I dunno: if this is Big Girl vs. GOD… Well, god never wrote any songs I listened to on repeat, so…
NYC duo Gardenia dropped their debut album May 26th, and in eight songs they really show off what they can do. It’s just bass, vocals, and drums (with a few other tidbits here and there), but Knowing You Know Nothing proves that’s all these two need. They met working together at a local studio and started the band in 2018, and vocalist/bassist Ry Zakin’s fuzzy bass manages to float effortlessly between rhythm and melody while drummer Tamir Malik’s skillful beats set the tone for each tune as the band shows off its range. No two songs are quite alike, but they all have one thing in common: “We’re pissed, and you should be too,” the duo says is the message of the album
The first track and lead single “Hall Pass” is a grungey tune that will also appeal to fans of pop. It ramps up from a simple bassline and soft vocals about astrology into a wildly catchy chorus. This is one of those tracks that anyone can (and will) bop their head to.
“Hall Pass” is followed by “Daydream Nightmare”, which gives us a taste of something a little more unhinged and angry as Zakin’s words loop behind him and he screams his own backup vocals. And the lyrics are clever, too: “You tell me ‘chase my dreams’ like I don’t die in all of them.”
The focus track, “Believe Me (or don’t)”, actually starts off with the quietest little riff. What these two are amazing at is getting from point A to point B, because before you know it you’re nodding along to a sludgy chorus that invokes something 90s and furious. This is one where Zakin’s voice (and the echoes of it that whisper in the background) really shines. It’s a very simple song, with a simple chorus and a simple subject matter—but the duo clearly knows how to make simplicity work. Of the track, Zakin says, “There’s a ton of songs out there about cheating, but I noticed that most of them took the stance of being cheated on, and I thought it would be interesting to write about it from the instigator’s perspective.”
The next song is my personal favorite, “Mattress Actress”. This one doesn’t start slow; we get right into a fun, quick bass riff over some weird, cool synthy pick slide thing, and then a grunt—yes, a grunt!—that takes us into a deep, dirty rock track where Malik’s drums dazzle and Zakin’s voice manages to be some fantastic combination of 90s punk and 70s classic rock that does everything you’d need a guitar to do melody-wise. This track’s got clever, amusing lyrics and it’s just an absolute jam, if you ask me.
“I Hope Ur Crying” is slow and heavy, and there’s something hopeful in it: the transition from the speaker’s sadness into powerful, righteous anger reads more like an invocation than a depression. And in contrast, the next song, “Black Perfume,” sounds like when you are walking down a street in Manhattan late at night. Moody, almost a little jazzy, this one proves that just bass and drums can still be melodic and crisp, with a fantastic bass solo in the middle, and a little Mission Impossible-esque riff cutting through the verses.
“Maybe I’m Just Being Paranoid” starts out creepy, a little psychedelic. A little more experimental than the other tracks on this album, this one starts with a whisper (“You’re paranoid / relentless…” over and over and over), but then later we get a droning distorted bridge and a skillful solo backed by alienesque synths, and the last few bars, a few strums of a phaser-y bass between some of Malik’s awesome drum solos, bring us out with bang.
Finally, “All the Ugly Things” is edgy, urban, and definitely pissed: “Wouldn’t you be angry too?” It goes from zero to a hundred between the verses and chorus. Malik has another chance to show off his drumming chops and he takes it, soloing some delicious fills as the last quarter of the song plays out lyricless.
With this debut, Gardenia has flaunted their range and skill. Two heads are better than one—but for them, it might be better than three, or four, or five too. They do a lot with very little, here, proving that simplicity and savvy (and some awesome rhythms) are enough to put together a solid, compelling, refreshing album.
Bully’s 2020 release Sugaregg was raucous; wild; raw. But their brand new fourth studio album Lucky For You, released June 2nd on Sub Pop, is a little mellower; subtler. The band’s mastermind, Alicia Bognanno, still has a lot to say, though—maybe more than she ever has before.
There’s a lot of 90s grunge influence in Bully’s previous album, but this one seems to be a marriage between that and a more 2010s pop sound. The instrumental behind the first track, “All I Do,” is almost Best Coast-y, ethereal and upbeat in a way that you’re almost shocked to hear Bognanno’s (awesome) raspy vocals cut into the indie pop twang. It works, though—not too much dirt nor too clean, it’s a uniquely wonderful concoction.
“Days Move Slow,” the album’s lead single, is a tribute to Bognanno’s dog, Mezzi, who passed away shortly before this song was written. “I was a stranger to the level of love I now know exists because of Mezzi,” Bognanno said when the single was released in March, “Love you forever; I’m lucky for you.” It’s almost universal, that feeling (my friend’s beloved snake, Lemon, just passed the other day), but still impossibly personal. This track takes that cleaner pop vibe up a notch, still garbled and loud but something more melodic and soft about it, some “oohs” in the beginning that remind me of indie pop Canadians Alvvays. Bognanno doesn’t scream here, but you can hear her emotion and you can hear her grief even over that inexplicably upbeat rhythm.
You know when you are thinking too fast, but it’s all about the same thing? The days do move slow, and Bognanno seems stuck in her grief, unable to stop reflecting on it but for fleeting moments: “Sometimes when I zone out at night / I’ll forget you’re outta sight / like living before you were gone.” I know Bognanno’s voice always has that scratch to it, but this time it feels like someone who’s just finished crying. And those definitive chants in the verse (to me they call to mind Courtney Barnett’s “Pedestrian at Best”) almost sound like she’s angry at herself for wallowing in her grief, like if she was a little stronger she could make it go away: “Something’s gotta change, I know!”
My personal favorite track is “Hard to Love.” It’s teasing us, really: it builds and builds, and we expect a big, loud, grungey chorus like in Sugaregg’s “Let You” (among others), but we’re met with silence instead. Which makes it so much more satisfying when that release finally comes: “Hard to Love!” Bognanno belts in that signature rasp. She goes against instinct here, that first chorus even just a little too short, a little too little, so that it keeps us wanting more. It’s impressive, breaking the rules in the way only a master of her craft (with a decade and four albums of practice) can do it. This one’s pretty self-deprecating, too, like Bognanno’s still mad at herself for being the way that she is. But aren’t we all, at ourselves? “I can’t trust anyone,” she sings, “No matter how far they’d run / I’ll find a way to make you lie.”
Bognanno really shows off the masterful control she has over her voice on this release. It’s not always throaty grunge; she can do whatever the hell she wants. That pop vibe sort of grows as you get deeper into the album, with the slow and melodic “A Wonderful Life” (which sports a harmonica! How cool is that?) and the thoughtful, soft “Change Your Mind.” There’s something deeply personal and sometimes shameful in these tunes that simply can’t be screeched: “After all it’s unattractive for me to burden you with shame.” “How Will I Know” is like that, too, and she’s stuck again, thinking too much—this time about her own choices: “Gotta get out of my head / find something else to do / ‘cause there’s no point obsessing over what I would have changed.”
“A Love Profound” is the most experimental of the tracks, with garbled lo-fi spoken-word, and an off, eerie break in the music. Even the title is a little strange and poetic, romantic (the genre and the era). “I’ve been looking for you everywhere, trying to find you in places I would never think to see,” she speaks in the beginning, and you wonder where it’s going. But Bognanno can put alt-pop vocals over anything and it’ll sound good. Her voice, her lyrics, her skill as a songwriter is just that honed.
Sophie Allison of Soccer Mommy joins in on “Lose You,” and talk about 90s inspo: just call them Nina and Louise, ‘cause this one instantly invoked Veruca Salt for me. The little squeal of feedback and the angry-but-righteous minor chords on the chorus—it’s 90s NEWstalgia, like 90s nostalgia but, y’know, new—not like all the rest, somehow. Maybe that’s what happens when you get two of the coolest names in modern indie rock to do a song together. And Bognanno still can’t stop thinking: “The shades of blue that remind me of you are everywhere.” It really does start to feel like we’re inside her head, and there’s a lot going on in there—I guess that’s where all these songs come from.
“Ms. America” seems tragic in its soft, elegant intimacy. And it is tragic, but this song is political, not intimate: “Ms. America’s been calling / she’s been waiting on the line / wondering how you could respect her and then take her back in time.” This track feels like mourning, like something else has been lost. Once again, Bognanno’s frozen in that despair: “It’s hard when tragedy falls / to watch the world keep moving on.” With the context of ‘America’, you can pick out any one of these lyrics and understand exactly what it means: “If you’re heading towards the dream / what’s another hit and run?” It’s quiet, almost desolate, with no drums—the speaker seems really alone. But she’s not ’cause we’re all feeling the same way, aren’t we?
And of course I positively love “All This Noise.” A full 180 from the track before it in terms of energy, but it’s just the angrier side of that coin. If “Ms. America” was lonely and sad, this one is down. right. FURIOUS. “Ms. America” feels defeated and hopeless, but “All This Noise” is ready to fight. And where “Ms. America” is all dreamy metaphors, this one is literal and bare: “There’s an AR-15 in your house. It’s got one job to do / it’s quickly kill as many things that you want it to!” This track is true punk rock, like the bread on the other side of this album’s sandwich as we swing back into messy, rageful 90s shit. When that chorus hits, I’m ready to bellow “I’m tired of waiting!” along with her from the rooftops. Can this be our anthem for the revolution?
What more can I say? Alicia Bognanno knows what she’s doing: from bright, delicate indie-pop to impassioned, dirty grunge, plus everything in between and also whatever the heck else she wants. Do yourself a favor and give Lucky For You a listen ASAP and catch Bully on their US tour right now.
Lucky For Youwas released on June 2nd via Sub Pop and is available on Bandcamp and on all major streamers.