By: Joanna Helms
Being at a Girlpool show is like being at a slumber party: where that ridiculous thing you just blurted out without thinking becomes hysterically funny, because everyone’s a little exhausted and they’ve all already decided they love you unconditionally. In that world, it’s not unusual for the attendees to lapse into unexplained giggles at any moment, as band members Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad did on Friday night following their upbeat, over-before-you-know-it “Magnifying Glass.” Girlpool couldn’t have found a more suitable place in Durham to host their particular kind of party than The Pinhook, only a week out from the success of its fundraiser to pay off an extensive tax bill and save one of the city’s most inclusive, judgment-free, and intimate music venues.
From the moment they stepped on stage on Friday night for their sound check, bobbing along comically to the house music, it was clear that their stage presence wasn’t a presence as much as an absence—a rejection, even—of self-consciousness. When they sing together, eyes narrowing into matching squints, guitarist Cleo rocking side to side, it’s clear that they’re not there to put on a show, at least not in the sense of projecting coolness and calmness. They’re among friends and they know it, trust it. And they appreciate it—as bassist Harmony made clear from the stage a number of times, saying she was “super blessed” to be on tour with LA-based friend Bobby T and to play with Raleigh darling Beverly Tender. (The crowd at The Pinhook seemed on board with this friend vibe too; there was a strong sense of community, one a bit younger and less Durham-based on average than the group that recently banded together to save the club. I lost track of the number of times I heard someone say they were there in part because they knew Yvonne, bassist for Beverly Tender.)
Even as they invite intimacy, Cleo and Harmony have a harder side, and the way they switch between these modes—alternately sweet and jagged—is disarming in the best way. I’d taken note of hearing them on the radio before I even knew the name of their band—and if you’ve heard them, you understand why. Their songs are weirdly unsettling. Their frequent unison singing (breaking for moments into sweet harmony), disjunctive song forms, and rambling melodic figures often make their sound closer to The Shaggs than to riot grrrl, despite the frequent comparisons they garner to the latter movement. And yet the punk vibe is a constant undercurrent—they change in an instant from almost whispering one moment, jumping away from their mics and shredding the next, lightly finger-picking with a clean tone and then laying on heavy distortion.
The riot grrrl comparison becomes even clearer in their chatty, seemingly unfiltered stage banter, like Bikini Kill but with less of an explicit political edge. They riffed nonchalantly on everything from The Pinhook’s name to Cat Stevens lyrics to not knowing anything about Kanye’s new album (Cleo in response to a shout from the crowd suggesting a topic on which the pair could riff: “Pablo? Is this about Kanye?…Okay, I don’t know.”). Asking the room where the “James Taylor Memorial Bridge” is (in Chapel Hill, if you were wondering, though it’s not actually memorial as Taylor is still alive and well) kicked off an impromptu sing-along to the chorus of “Carolina in My Mind.” Their references to their childhood icons, spontaneous outbursts, and disdain for broader pop culture felt completely natural alongside their many lyrics exploring the pulls between childhood and adulthood, expressing the anguish of growing older without finding any answers with lines like, “My mind is almost 19, and I still feel angry.” This was perhaps no more evident at The Pinhook than when an extended Lizzie McGuire reference led into their screamy, sunny anthem to childhood, “Before the World Was Big,” where they explicitly address the anxieties of growing up: “My brain’s like a rolling snowball, I’m a fire truck/ Trying not to think of all the ways my mind has changed / Mom and dad, I love you, do I show it enough?”
Although Girlpool have gotten attention from the music press for their nonchalant attitudes and emotionally charged self-exploration, there’s much more to their music, as was especially clear in a couple of new songs they admitted they’d had to quickly work up recently when they played an hour-long set on tour in Australia. Their new work shows a tendency toward more dissonance, more distortion, with an evident capacity to expand that side of their sound as they mature to provide an even greater contrast to the aimless, girly, chanty side. This isn’t at all to deny the potency of their current embodiment of girlhood—just to say there’s also a good chance they’ll age gracefully and thoughtfully.
The zenith of that girlhood power is their electric, stunning connection to one another—evident on their recorded tracks but even more palpable on stage. As they began their final number of the night, “Cherry Picking,” they swayed together, eyes closed, strumming out the song’s slow intro (slowed to an even more glacial pace in performance) almost arhythmically—yet somehow, dreamily, psychically, completely in sync all the way. A few people in the crowd had called out for the song before it came up to close the set, but once they started it was clear that this wasn’t a song primarily for the rest of us. This was no sing-along, not even in the sense of the hushed, reverent chanting that had accompanied the slower and more wistful “Emily” and “Dear Nora.” It wouldn’t have been right. This was the moment they showed us their real performative superpower, something that felt very private and personal: the ability to merge, to transcend their singular identities. And that’s the real force behind Girlpool’s music at its most effective moments: they carve out a space built just for themselves, and then invite the rest of us in to listen.