Holding Hands With Jamie
by Chad Jewett
Holding Hands With Jamie, the debut full-length from Irish noise-punks Girl Band, has a way of training your ears. Defiantly lo-fi, doggedly committed to subtle variations on the same driving, ominous thump, the album tends to avoid anything like typical song structure (this record’s version of a chorus is any moment where the quartet’s simmering acidity boils over), and often bathes the passages where you’d expect a sudden hi-definition release in a patina of studio haze. A lot of Holding Hands feel translucent, something akin to reading text from beneath one of those thick, foggy sheets of hard plastic. The trick, however, is that most of the time the LP defies those subverted expectations and the vague sense that Holding Hands With Jamie would truly blow you away if Girl Band weren’t so stubborn about their own warped-cassette aesthetic. You can imagine the version of this album that doesn’t paint over its explosions, but it’s also the case that, in no time at all, you eat up the version we get, where even the most feral passages sound faintly subterranean.
The album begins with the thrumming “Umbongo”, which pairs a demonic surf riff (guitarist Alan Duggan, as always, deftly balancing “catchy” and “barbed”) to a 1-2 stomp that seemingly ticks in anticipation of singer Dara Kiely’s Cobain-circa-In Utero snarl. But instead, the song begins dividing itself into off-kilter patterns punctuated by randomly whistling feedback, and when Kiely does arrive, it’s to whisper incomprehensively, bathed in echo (though the lines that do surface, like “He claimed he was a professionally trained surgeon” are right in line with the Girl Band’s established macabre nightmares). It’s a moment that’s actually bracingly quiet as opposed to bracingly bombastic, and it speaks to the quartet’s increasing ear for strategy: we all know it’s going to burst, so the anticipation becomes the thrill. The whole thing twists its wild way, dragging that surf-riff back into focus, adding a rolling snare. Then it just ends. Again, you can either be frustrated – on last year’s “Lawman” that kind of slowly added rumble eventually became a sonic boom – or you can appreciate the notion that Girl Band are figuring out different ways to shape and aim their caustic post-punk.
Indeed, one clear upside of the band’s more adventurous approach is the ingenuity it asks of Kiely; and the singer delivers. The strategic quiet passages of Holding Hands give him room for his laconic baritone, equal parts Ian Curtis gloom and Iggy Pop provocation, as on the ghostly waltz of “In Plastic” or the early, surprisingly pretty stretches of “Texting An Alien”, where Kiely’s spoken word ends up recalling Slint – a thread the band follows when things suddenly turn dark midway through. Kiely’s smirking faux-drawl is especially satiric on “The Last Riddler”, where his melody becomes syrup over the band’s sprinting punk, all of which pays off when the singer leans into his collection of falsettos and screams, the latter of which generally becomes the quiet/LOUD pay-off that the album’s production otherwise confrontationally withholds. The song doesn’t break 90 seconds, but like the blink-and-you’ll-mist it “The Cha Cha Cha” from last year, it becomes immediately clear that Girl Band might actually be better at short, pointed infernos than they are at their more favored slow simmer.
Yet its one of the LP’s longest slow-boils, lead single “Paul” that stands as the foremost achievement here. In theory, the algebra remains the same as the formula powering “Lawman” — a steady, martial beat, a slowly gathering swarm of noise, a sense for precisely the right moment to let all hell break loose – but the execution has become more cinematic, more cagily tense. At first there isn’t much there besides Adam Faulkner’s pared-down beat and Daniel Fox’s cycling bass figure, but at around the 1:45 mark the song starts to gather steam, huffing with locomotive clamor and as eerie as chains being dragged up stairs. We hear Dara Kiely from a distance – this being one definite time where the album’s washed-out aesthetic absolutely serves its song’s sense of drama – fighting over increasing depths of skittering feedback and scuffed guitars. Then there’s a short reprieve, stuck right there in the middle of the song’s otherwise waxing gusts, just before the arrival of another layer of absolutely shrieking noise. The rest of the song pushes and pulls this way, with Kiely eventually screaming in short barks, with Faulkner re-setting each sortie with the same huge snare roll. It’s a transfixing listen, and emblematic of Girl Band at their best: a troupe of noise artists whose sole preoccupation seems to be finding every weird, oblique angle from which to wire their ferocious electricity.