The year may be just two months old yet already it's seen excellent releases from Foals, Frightened Rabbit, My Bloody Valentine, Darkstar, Veronica Falls and Villagers in what has been a great start to the year for music. Another addition to that list comes in the shape of Girls Names, a band who've been hovering around the Belfast underground scene for a good few years now. Indeed, it's unlikely anyone at last year's Primavera Sound festival won't have come across them at some point, as they played three times over the course of the weekend.
Nevertheless, its been anything but an easy ride for Girls Names to get to where are they are now. Formed four years ago as a three-piece, their first release on Brooklyn imprint Captured Tracks attracted the attention of London-based independent Tough Love and they've been mutual sparring partners ever since. Initially walking a similar minefield to the likes of Hatcham Social, Spectrals and Wavves - bits of Postcard-influenced jangle pop here mixed with surfer-chic lo-fi there, despite the obvious potential of early compositions like 'Bloodwell' and 'If I' - there was always a danger of Girls Names becoming just another angular Eighties throwback like so many of their contemporaries.
The 2011 release of debut long player Dead To Me did little to appease such anxieties, even though a wave of critical acclaim ensued. Singer, guitarist and songwriter in chief Cathal Cully even went on record recently declaring the album 'Literally dead to us by the time it was committed to wax.' Which takes us back to last summer and those festival shows in Barcelona. Playing three sets worth of mostly unfamiliar material, Girls Names were clearly metamorphosing into something more wholesome, dynamic even. Whilst not entirely unrecognisable from the awkward sounds of their beginnings, this was clearly a dimension away from any of the band's previous works.
And so, fast forward another eight months and those compositions are finally with us in a recorded format. Encompassing ten pieces of exquisitely crafted vignettes - nine not including the 56-seconds long intro 'Portrait' - The New Life is an inspired collection that's pretty much self-explanatory by way of its title. While the reverb-laden guitars, heavily distorted vocals and occasional Eighties reference points remain in part, there's something altogether more illuminating about The New Life than its predecessor even remotely hinted at.
If the opening bassline to 'Pittura Infamante' sounds familiar - and to anyone with the slightest knowledge of The Stone Roses or Altered Images it will be - there's a whole sinister undertone eating away at its deepest core. "That bodies have to retain recovery, it's too hard" insists Cully over a haunting melody that borders on nervous. 'Drawing Lines' also veers uneasily between Cully and Philip Quinn's textured six-stringed interplay and devastating couplets like "Beauty lies behind abstraction" and "Stare into a face with fragile eyes that bleed". At times Cully's vocals are so distorted in the mix they become indecipherable, but here the clarity in such dread-filled verses conspire to make five of the most devastating minutes these ears have been exposed to in recent times.
While much of the emphasis is focused upon Cully, it's worth mentioning at this point the impeccably taut rhythm section of Neil Brogan and Claire Miskimmin. Allegedly, Miskimmin couldn't actually play the bass when she first joined the band three years ago. Here, the harmonious juxtaposition between all four members characterises the revitalised Girls Names impeccably. 'Hypnotic Regression' could be the missing link between Wire's experimental pop passages and the edgy New York cool of Crystal Stilts. Riding along on the cusp of a reverb-heavy wave, it's another shining example of Girls Names new found ambition. Borrowing from the past is one thing. To turn it into a unique entity something else completely. That The New Life's creators have achieved it in spades speaks volumes. For dedication to the cause if nothing else. After all, it would have been so easy to just follow the formulaic path set by others on a similar journey.
Quinn's orgasmic keyboard entrees float and hover above Cully's every syllable on the dreamy 'Occultation', while 'A Second Skin', possibly inspired by The Wake's underrated Here Comes Everybody menaces ("Should we wait for a judgment day?") and soothes ("You'll find your perfect place") in equal measures. 'Notion' is the nearest Girls Names get to the short, sharp bursts of Dead To Me, its three minutes infused with ebullient post-punk bile. The best is saved for last though, as the shuffling, hypnotic groove of 'Projektions' melts effortlessly into the eight-minutes long title track, arguably Girls Names' most audacious and spellbinding creation to date. "How can we ever begin?" asks Cully before responding with a curt, "Meet through my darkest days", its chiming riff ascending into a climactic finale that brings both song and album to a close.
At times, The New Life feels like a concept. The sound of isolation and despair. Even visually mirrored and depicted by Rob Peart's monochrome sleeve photo. If Cathal Cully's aim was to leave the past behind then he's succeeded resoundingly, and created one of this year's most ungainly beautiful records in the process.
9Dom Gourlay's Score