by Preston Radtke
To speak frankly, the latest release from Los Angeles-based Girlpool is not a bad album. The twenty-nine minute sit-in contains very few critically offensive or disrespectful structures. Instead, Powerplant can best be described as depersonalized, disappointing, and possibly bland. It seems like just last week that Before the World Was Big, their landmark 2015 release was making waves in the indie hemisphere. Sadly though, the duel vocals and Kimya Dawson-esque spunk found on that release don’t seem to have translated to their latest incarnation.
Mood: More angst, less quirk
Powerplant finds Girlpool ditching their previous fun, lighthearted façade for a more moody and emo-leaning temperament. The decreased quirk shattered the odd, yet effective juxtaposed construct found on their previous releases. On their self-titled EP, and on Before the World Was Big, Girlpool harmonized on such topics as women in punk rock, gender equality, and lesbian relationships. All of these heavy subjects were delivered with a mix of upbeat guitar lines, relatively aggressive vocals, and tongue-in-cheek lyrics. For a prime example of this past splendor, please give a listen to “Before the World Was Big” off of the album of the same name.
This album features much more slowed-down tempos, guttural sounding percussives, and vocals that are progressive, yet painfully meticulous in their journey to the vocal climax. Girlpool still attempts to focus on heavy topics however, except their message comes across as predictable and run-of-the-mill. On previous releases, Girlpool would catch listeners off guard with their sunny demeanor juxtaposed with their melodramatic topics. This album is almost too obvious in its attempt to be understood as a deep, meaningful experience. The song “Fast Dust” is the moodiest and dreariest-sounding cut off the entire album. A track seemingly about a troubled lost friend, the song hints at mental health and a lack of identity. Normally, the morose demeanor of this track would fit such forlorn subjects. The problem is, Girlpool still has a very DIY amateur sound about them that sounds odd and confusing when dealing with heavy topics.
Percussion: You don’t need drums to have a band
Girlpool decided to add more punch and tempo to their music by installing friend Miles Wintner as their drummer. Odd as it may seem, their music actually had more rhythm on their previous releases when they had no drummer. One of the truly marvelous results from Before the World Was Big was the duo’s ability to create songs with accessible and efficient beats with no one on drums. The tempo was created completely through vocals and guitars. On Powerplant, the drums in fact add context and personality, but they also overshadow and distort the vocal performances of Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad. In some cases, the distortion is done on purpose, like on the opening track “123”, but on other songs like “Sleepless” and “Powerplant”, the vocals are nearly impossible to discern and interpret. Simply put, Tucker and Tividad’s voices are both too gentle and soloistic to have a drummer backing them.
Vocals: Tucker and Tividad in near-perfect harmony
The vocals on this track are a work of folk, punk and lo-fi excellence. Vocalists Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad sing beautifully in-tune with each other to form the album’s moods and personality. Cleo and Harmony cling to each other, never singing without the other. They are always singing the same notes, usually at the same pitch. The result is a more serious and high pitched Kimya Dawson. “123” is the duo’s vocal zenith, a track where Cleo and Harmony match each other’s pitch while navigating the vocal gauntlet; from whispers to screams. Speaking of those whispers and screams, the whispers are much more plentiful on this record. The pair’s whispered vocals, like on “Your Heart”, are beautiful occurrences that touch the listeners and allow them to connect with both the music and the pair of vocalists. However, those screams are effective in their own way; in a majestic, angry, and slightly riot grrrl type of way. Again, look to “123.” The screamed vocals provide just the right amount of grit and protest to songs that could come across as too proletariat.
The only issue with the vocals on this album is the lack of solos. Girlpool and Before the World Was Big contained many instances of Cleo and Harmony singing counteractive vocals that nearly made the listener choose sides. In some cases, their dual vocality was as pleasant sounding and as innovative as The Hot Rock by Sleater-Kinney.
“She Goes By”
Also in the Powerplant family:
Diet Cig: Swear I’m Good At This
Frankie Cosmos: Next Thing
Angel Olsen: My Woman
All images from Bandcamp
Girlpool appears to juggle several ideas with diminishing results: heavy topics, down tempo, and punk-leaning lyrics. It seemed that the band wanted to be taken more seriously; unfortunately, their clashing ideas and mispurposed instrumentation inhibited that from happening. 4.5
Unpopular opinion: You do not need drums to be taken seriously in 2017! Girlpool enhanced their outward credibility and dynamicism by adding drummer Miles Wintner. Sadly though, his drums only slowed down the music, distorted vocals, and depersonalized messages. 4
Cleo and Harmony once again showed how magnificent they are as vocalists. Whispers, screams, climbs, all were within the capabilities of the SoCal match. 9.5
Preston is a Emerging Media and Design major. His favorite things include: Seinfeld, The band Sleater-Kinney, Denim jackets, and traveling. When I’m not writing for Byte, he’s working on his thesis dealing with Transmedia in music marketing, working on his very amateur novel, and spending way too much money on restaurants.