November 18, 2019
Released On March 5, 1996
Released By Touch And Go Records
I have to be careful. Having had my musically formative years in the ’80s and ’90s, I am now at a stage where appreciating anything from that era could get me branded as a nostalgist. When we don’t outright decry them, people my age tend toward a certain amount of reverence for both decades but for very different reasons. Before talking about Girls Against Boys, however, or why I think their debut album was an important one, it’s important to understand a little about the context and the sound of the time. Creativity and musical innovation happen in all kinds of ways and it happens every day in popular music. Even today’s ubiquitous use of autotune or the ’70s experimentation with bending and warping sounds that a decade earlier were fairly evenly delivered stand out as innovations unique to that context. I wouldn’t be the first to point out the impact of grunge on the ’90s. Understand, however, that I am not talking specifically about bands from Seattle, like Mudhoney or Tadd — I am referring to an approach to making hard rock music in the non-genre sense. What we might have called “alternative” in the late ’80s and early ’90s was not unlike punk in that it borrowed from its mainstream cousin, rock, dialed it up in both aggression, noise, and social commentary and deliberately perverted its otherwise pedestrian appeal into something that sounded messier, dirtier, and, for those seeking something more extreme, a brand new fix. Grunge, in particular, took hard rock and made it loud, more chaotic, more irreverent and, importantly, less talented in the traditional sense. Like punk did to rock and roll, grunge opened the door to making music for anyone pissed off enough to pick up a guitar and express themselves.
But what about electronic music? At the same time, grunge was filling the smoky dive bars with transitioning metal fans, electronic music was undergoing its own evolution, breaking into the mainstream and perverting rock in its own way. In some cases, the lines began to blur with bands like Jesus Jones, EMF, and The Farm. Rock was not just enduring the abusive pressure of grunge, but it was now becoming infected with a groove on the other side as well. It was becoming increasingly common to find rock bands with members pounding out guitar-like riff aggression on the usually delicate keyboards and samplers while standing next to them, the guitar was simply winding and squealing a wall of distorted noise. The influence of dance music on popular music is felt to this day and it dominated that time even more than grunge. But somewhere in the center of it all, March 1996, a quartet from Washington DC, released their 4th album, House Of GVSB, which seemed to bubble up out of that musical stew and take some of us by storm. What of their other 3 albums? I’ll be honest with you — I don’t know. I listened to them sometime back in 1996, but they never caught me in quite the same way. Neither did anything they released in the years up to 2013’s The Ghost List. I think there’s a reason for that.
It begins with a guitar riff which is recognizable as a typically winding, jangly riff from any pop-rock song of the time. It’s after that first intro bar that there’s an instant twist. A grunge-era wall of noise guitar bends through a wah-wah peddle. Only another bar later it all stops and is replaced by a minimal, almost disco — reminiscent lick to bounce along with the vocals. Carrying the whole thing is Alexis Fliesig’s relentless rock-n-roll breakbeat hitting the toms so hard they might as well be additional snares. The raspy, strained vocals of Scott Mcloud, who seemingly recently recovered from swallowing a porcupine, coughs out delirious half-time lines like “What the fuck is going on…?!“. I couldn’t have said it better myself.
It also wasn’t uncommon to have records that were able to pound out a single or two when the rest of the record didn’t live up. The same cannot be said about House Of GVSB. If you liked “Super-fire,” “Click Click” just continues the madness while showing off that a relentless, monotonous bass drone can be made to sound dynamic. When Eli Janney pounded on the keyboards, he used sounds and samples which were difficult to distinguish from effect-driven guitar sounds, but Girls Against Boys was typically driven by two bass players. “Crash 17 (X-Rated Car)” sounds like what would happen if you took a club electro song and tried to play it with nothing but guitars and peddles. Half surf punk and half indie rock, it boasts an almost comical high-pitched backup vocal which could be mistaken for soul.
The highlights of the record for me are “Vera Cruz” and “TheKindaMzkYouLike.” Both walk that same thin line between a perversion of dance music and a shoegazer haze of guitar noise you can lose yourself in. It may be apparent at this point that I was also a huge fan of My Bloody Valentine, Ride, The Wedding Present, and other bands that were smashing together groove, noise, and minimal melodies. It definitely became a thing. I can see a parallel between what Girls Against Boys is doing on “TheKindaMzkYouLike” and James Brown’s material. While his was far more minimal and straight forward, the delirium is the added element. It’s that sonic oblivion that was my favourite part of the ’90s.
To this day, I can listen to this record from beginning to end and it hasn’t lost its luster. I recognize completely that if it was before your time it might not have quite the same effect. Frankly, much of what they did, which was innovative and new at the time, has been replicated in the years since. But nobody has ever sounded quite as unique, with stylized vocals that would make Mike Doughty proud and a sloppy, jagged production that’ll leave your tweeters shredded and torn. It made sense then. It was born of a musical era which may be lost on modern listeners but I want to give it a shot. Franky, I can’t wait to hear how my fellow writers, of varying age and musical persuasions, interpret this record. Regardless of how they feel though, I expect that at some point they were unknowingly tapping their foot or nodding their head as the world exploded into a carpet bomb of distorted noise. It’s an image that makes me chuckle. That’s what the ’90s was to me and it’s one of the things that we’ve lost in modern music — the ability to make music out of contrast and conflict where worlds collided and wrought exciting results. Did it always work? No. But when it did, I’d tumble backwards, lose my mind in a frenzy of air guitar and bad dance moves as I jumped up on something — anything — and contorted my face: “What the fuck is going on…?!“… Ok. Maybe I’m a little nostalgic.
D.C. rock giants navigating the tricky world of “post” connotation with open minds, vibrant talent, & vivid music.
No matter how many times I played House Of GVSB, or its individual songs, I couldn’t help but think of drugs. I either thought of a dark alley slink, the kind of movement and/or feeling that comes from the trip to score, or I thought of an itch that never really goes away. It’s the kind of itch a junkie in need of a fix would experience. My mind oscillated between these two modes because the album does, too. The rhythm section lurks and prowls around, while the guitars scratch at bugs that aren’t there. It reminds me of movies like Spun and Trainspotting — movies that are totally drugged out in an attempt to present what that kind of life is like to… let’s call them outsiders. In those (types of) films, the main characters are exhausted at some point. They might be exhausted for much of the movie. I get that same impression when I listen to Scott McCloud’s vocals. He, too, sounds tired for much of the album. He sounds like he barely has the strength to get words out. Is he tired from all of the (metaphorical) itching? Possibly. But when McCloud doesn’t sound fatigued — as on, say, “TheKindaMzkYouLike” — his voice takes on a malevolently hypnotic personality. It’s inviting but in an uncomfortable way. I’m currently reading Needful Things, so I guess I’ll use Leland Gaunt as the stand-in example here. I’ve sorta wandered from my main point here, but I suppose that’s fitting for an album so unsure of its own status.
The start of “Crash 17 (X-Rated Car)” is striking — no pun intended. “Through my eyes it’s not the same / It’s not the same / Through my head it’s just a lie / It’s just a lie.” That’s subjectivity in a nutshell, something I spent time thinking about over the weekend, thanks to Steady Sounds record store in Richmond. They posted about an album called Pan Machine, a collection of Kraftwerk covers performed by the long-running Ebony Steel Band. It sounds bonkers, but there’s something powerful about the way the steel drums draw out the melodicism of songs like “The Model,” which I’d erroneously associated with deadpan vocal delivery. I’ve been trying for a while to work on separating songs and lyrics from the way they’re voiced, since the physical characteristics of a person’s vocal cords have so little to do with the substance of what’s being communicated. At the same time, so much of what makes music thrilling is the magnetism exuded by individual people standing in front of a microphone, giving the world the creativity they have to give. It feels like Girls Against Boys sits at the intersection of that paradox. Those opening lines of “Crash 17 (X-Rated Car)” are both performative and straightforward — matter-of-fact statements with a clear, underlying intensity. I hear the same dynamic in the fuzzed-out riff that defines the beginning of “TheKindaMzkYouLike” — so much pathos packed into a standout part that spans so few notes. (Very curious as to whether N.E.R.D.’s “Rock Star” was inspired by it.) Also in “Disco Six Six Six,” the way the “White diamonds / Black Pearls” payoff couplet is cooly dispensed. There’s so much artful understatement, yet singular pieces manage to feel so weighty.
Bringing enough light to match the bright talent house in this music.
This album is Mexican food. Trust me, that’s a compliment, but I feel like I have to qualify it in a post-Trump world. This album is Mexican food. It’s a brilliant mix of only a handful of very simple ingredients, yet every track bears it’s own distinct identity and presentation. And there’s even some hip hop elements that pop up when least expected. For example, the minimalist/industrial slow drag of “Zodiac Love Team” reminds me of many of our favorite Pusha T records. There’s even a twinge of a revered scratch and backspin at the very beginning of the record — needless to say, this got my attention. And then there’s the Roland 808-infused funk of “Vera Cruz.” It’s a mostly bare bones composition (except for the wicked aggressive choruses) that sounds like something in an un-Earthed box of Swizz Beats demos from his years as a changeling. As a matter of fact, slap a Swizzy tag on that loop right now, and you’d probably have yourself about twenty grand from any of the major labels. But I digress. House Of GVSB is post-hardcore, with a kick. Some extra spice. Some sizzle. Now I’m just supporting my own narrative, and I need to stop.
Finally, a band I’m familiar with hit the OYR list! What do I even need to say about Girls Against Boys. They set the tone and became a huge influence for many of the post-hardcore bands I listen to today. Although familiar with the band, I really haven’t dug into their discography much and tend to listen to the couple of songs by them that I am familiar with. I was excited when I got to really dig into their 1996 album House Of GVSB. Dark and moody seems to be the theme of this band from what I know about them and this album definitely puts that vibe in the spotlight. From beautiful yet dissonant guitar work to the seemingly random vocal freakouts that emit and undeniable vibe of angst, everything about this album is just what my currently stressed out to the max self-needed. Although every song is undeniably Girls Against Boys, each song brings a different vibe to the table which keeps this entire album feeling fresh yet so familiar. If I had to suggest one song for you to listen to in order to get the vibe of this album, it would have to be “Life In Pink.” Not only is it my favorite on this album, it truly showcases all of the things that this monumental band brings to the table. I started the process of looking for a house to buy and to say I’m a little stressed out right now would be an understatement. That being said, I definitely think House Of GVSB will have an important spot in this process as my relief from all of the stress I’m about to go through.
I like the chord progressions on this record. I don’t know what they are, but I like them. Honestly, that’s probably why I dig these songs so much. I love music that can surprise my ear and make me feel as though I’m hearing some old idea for the first time. My favorite feeling is when the sense of newness comes with feeling as though I’ve been listening to a song my entire life but I never really heard it until the present moment. That’s the feeling I crave and seek in music. The collaboration of the familiar and the new is what it’s all about for me as a listener and composer. Girls Against Boys definitely captures some of that on this record. I’m sure that some people find the lead singer’s voice abrasive, but I find it completely appropriate and intoxicating when paired with the musical ideas happening underneath. The sounds on this record are… electronic? Effect based? I don’t know how they did it, but the sound is their own and it captures a mood that I associate more with the eighties than the nineties. Alas, this album came out in ’96, the year I was born. So I guess, what do I know about how the nineties or the eighties sounded? I hear you had to be there. What I can say for sure though, is that this album is an enjoyable listen in 2019, and definitely leaves plenty of room for extra appreciation, given the band’s less-than-modest level of coverage.
How do you break out of a crowded DC underground and a densely packed alt-rock sound of the ’90s? I don’t know. Ask Girls Against Boys.
Nonsensical band name. Even dumber album title. Cover art that looks like it was done with Microsoft Paint. I had good reasons for ignoring Girls Against Boys in 1996! And that’s not even mentioning the other life-changing albums that came out that year: Endtroducing by DJ Shadow and Odelay by Beck, to name just the first two that come to mind. There was also Hell On Earth by Mobb Deep, Aenima by Tool, Atliens by OutKast, and Emperor Tomato Ketchup by Stereolab…hell, even Metallica’s Load hit my sweet spot with its mix of ballads and boogie. But now, almost a quarter century later, I can safely say: House Of GVSB rocks. But not like Bachman-Turner Overdrive, more like the first wave of British post-punk, with juddering rhythms, jagged guitars, highly stylized vocals. It’s like the missing link between early Killing Joke and Lo Fidelity All-Stars (how great were they?). Even if I didn’t think Black Midi were kind of a fraud, I would question whether they could afford to pay the debt they owe these guys, along with all the other influences they put into their blender — set, no doubt, on “ultra-hip,” which comes somewhere between frappé and purée. But I digress. Getting back to this album by Girls Against Boys, if you didn’t give it the time of day for any of the reasons listed above, now is the time to right that wrong!
The ’90s is full of them. Celebrated bands, all pioneers in their own right, that released a swath of great records. They may not have sold a million records or be household names, but decades later, fans and critics alike are still arguing over their best release with the fervor of a Revolver vs. Sgt. Pepper’s debate. (The correct answer is Abbey Road, but nice try.) To those still carrying on the argument, bands like this are just as vital as The Beatles… and there’s no real argument that they were wrong. The ’90s was groundbreaking for multiple generations, with bands taking the existing rule book and ripping it open to either expose it bare or piece-part what they liked within the frame. Each band exposed their audience to new sounds, structures, styles, and moods, and even if they weren’t exactly the first ones to do it themselves, they were the first for a lot of their audience, again similar to The Beatles heyday. They weren’t first either, no matter what anyone says (looking at you, Brian Wilson), but just the first to the most people. Girls Against Boys is exactly one of these bands, one that released several great records in the ’90s and one that served as the gateway into the world of post-hardcore for countless people. And despite people finding no real substantive jump from 1994’s Cruise Yourself (again, Revolver vs. Sgt. Pepper’s), these songs are near perfect for the ill-defined umbrella of alt-rock. The record opening with tinny guitar strums before being washed over by a sea of pounding rhythms, alarming distortions, and vibrant tones — it’s akin to Natalie Portman introducing The Shins in Garden State (“You gotta hear this one song. It’ll change your life.”) or Zooey Deschanel describing The Who in Almost Famous (“Listen to Tommy with a candle burning, and you’ll see your entire future.”). The first thirty seconds of this record alone exemplifies the inspiring power that was housed within rock music in the ’90s. And yeah, rock music never lost that power — I’m not going down that ignorant road, don’t worry — but it doesn’t quite compare to the ’90s where you could pick up any record by a band just featured on 120 Minutes and have a similar reaction. With that said, does it resonate with me, having heard a large number of records exactly like that? Hell, yes it does. How could it not? Dissonance sounding harmonious. Distortion becoming orderly. Rhythms & melodies you want to thrash around to and then later drift off to sleep with. This is alt-rock music I’ve lived for my whole life. And even in 2019, a lot of this still feels fresh and new to me. The crooning of “TheKindaMzkYouLike” that gets lost in the wave of distortion? Brilliant. The ghostly haunt of “Zodiac Love Team?” Dazzling. The Morse code melody and rhythm of “Vera Cruz?” Incomparable. Part of me wants to stop here and just enjoy this record in all of its glory, while the other part is screaming to take in all the other records and throw my own opinion into that debate/fight. But until I’m more versed in Girls Against Boys and not just their individual members (shout-out Eli Janney, who currently performs as part of the 8G Band for Late Night With Seth Meyers, the one show helping me keep sanity in the last several years), I’m more than happy to hit repeat on House Of GVSB and immerse myself in their stirring world of post-hardcore revelry.
Night People by Lee Dorsey
Chosen By Jeremy Shatan