Girl Band: The Talkies review – A raucous, idiosyncratic return
If we’re to take the title of Girl Band’s second album literally, it could mean that the Dublin band consider their 2015 debut to be their “silent” era. Few others would deem Holding Hands with Jamie to be anything other than a bruising, pummelling, unrelenting and entirely individual aural assault. In one fell swoop, it quickly earned the four-piece a place in the pantheon of Irish greats, installing them as an influence on a new generation of guitar bands and establishing them as one of our greatest Irish musical exports in recent times.
With that insane pressure heaped upon them, it’s little wonder that things began to crumble two years later. Off the back of Holding Hands with Jamie, promotional interviews pitched frontman Dara Kiely in the “mad genius” trope. His openness about the psychotic episode that partially inspired that album became a soundbite for many, who perhaps forgot that there was a real person suffering behind it all.
The cancellation of multiple tour dates in 2017 and the enforcement of an indefinite hiatus due to Kiely’s mental health problems led many to believe that Girl Band’s reign would be a brief-but-memorable affair – so their re-emergence in glorious technicolour, with the singular Shoulderblades earlier this summer, came as a pleasantly raucous surprise. With Kiely returning to college for a qualification in peer-led mental health support as part of his ongoing recovery, the band regrouped last winter at Ballintubbert House, a stately home that mostly lay dormant outside of wedding season, to piece together their second album.
As you might expect, there is nothing predictable about these tracks, which were mostly recorded in the key of A; a method inspired by Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, according to bassist and producer Daniel Fox. Kiely’s often indecipherable lyric sheet, meanwhile, had no pronouns on it this time around – partly as an experiment “because [he’d] never heard an album that does that”, and partly due to his negative association with words such as I, you, he and she during his darkest periods.
The album starts as it means to go on with Prolix, as Kiely’s increasingly distressed breathing (the result of a panic attack captured on tape during a rehearsal) pants over an Aphex Twin-style loop to create an unsettling sense of foreboding. His Mark E Smith-style drawl sprawls across Going Norway, the hiss of Adam Faulkner’s snare and Alan Duggan’s higgledy-piggledy guitar riff setting the scene for Kiely’s trademark abstract lyrics (“An elegant/Room elephant/Tusks in brag-age/Chomps trunks the age”). Shoulderblades references 19th-century urban legend Edward Mordake, talk show host Rikki Lake and budget booze brand Dutch Gold as if they were natural bedfellows; the propulsive thud of Caveat is almost a ravey dance track, with only Kiely’s nihilistic fire-and-fury yowl anchoring it to dissonant noise-rock. There are surprises at every corner, too; the squeal of violins that punctuates the seven-minute-long Prefab Castle; the air-raid whistle of guitars on Couch Combover and the squall that follows the detonation; the Twin Peaks-inspired backwards-looped effect of Aibohphobia, a song inspired by palindromes that also uses them as its lyrics (and the only rock song where you’ll hear a reference to Navan anytime soon.)
There’s so much eating and drinking in this album, as they say, that multiple listens simply won’t suffice; it may take forever to untangle. There’s no question that it won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it is a record that will swallow you up before you even realise it. An audacious, idiosyncratic collection of songs by a band that remain defiantly, effortlessly and uncompromisingly themselves.
Download: Caveat, Going Norway