There are really only two routes that bands consisting of just two members can go. They can go for the all guns blazing approach and create enough noise to make critics question whether their sound is truly produced by only two members – something successfully achieved recently by Royal Blood and Drenge; and The White Stripes and The Black Keys before them. Or, alternatively, they can take the minimal approach.
It is the latter approach that has been utilised by Los Angeles duo Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad, who make up Girlpool. The sound produced by the pair, who met at LA’s famous indie club The Smell, is almost as raw as it gets, with only a guitar, bass and their vocal harmonies to keep them company. It may sound simple, but it is mightily effective – as Girlpool’s debut album, Before The World Was Big, demonstrates.
From start to finish, it is a record that revels in its stripped-down arrangements, which allow Tividad and Tucker’s shrill vocals to come to the fore. Opener Ideal World sets out the band’s formula perfectly, with its casually strummed guitar strings providing essentially the only instrumentation for the vocals to work off, with the duo innocently singing: “I thought I’d found myself today/ no one’s noticed things are okay.”
If that sounds like your cup of tea, then Before The World Was Big is for you. If not, then you may want to stay clear. Dear Nora continues with the minimal, sparse production that kicked off the record and is sustained throughout its short 25-minute runtime, with a delightful lo-fi melody carrying along the two teenager’s whispers. It is arguably one of the most poignant moments on an LP that is full of them.
However, the heartbeat of the record is undoubtedly the mesmerising Cherry Picking, which is started by an interlocking vocal harmony from Tividad and Tucker, before a scratchy guitar riff quickly develops. As the longest song – coming in at just over three-and-a-half – it uses its time wisely, gradually building to a rousing vocal chorus of “Yes I am picking cherries/ I have a hard time staying clean”.
Occasionally, this sweet, minimalist approach can become grating. The pair’s vocals, in particular, are very much an acquired taste, with the sheer shrillness quite irritating at times. Take the short, sharp burst of Magnifying Glass, where Tividad and Tucker sound like children rehearsing a nursery rhyme, while the album’s title track walks a very fine line between pop punk and a screechiness that is difficult to sit through.
When they do get it right, though, Girlpool’s simple arrangements provide the perfect basis for their endearing lyrics, which explore the concepts of growing up, friendship and identity. “And if I told you I loved you would you take it the wrong way,” they sing on Chinatown, where a rumbling bassline stumbles along without a care in the world – contrasting with the anxiety of the words.
In fact, it is fascinating to see how far Girlpool have come in the short time since the release of their self-titled EP at the end of last year. While the lack of instruments has remained the same, the seven songs that made up the EP were more interested in exploring the punk attitude than When The World Was Big, which exhibits greater vulnerability in tracks like Crowded Stranger and the beautiful Emily.
It is this vulnerability in their lyrics – combined with the confident production and their clear focus – that really shines through by the conclusion of When The World Was Big. “My mind is almost 19 and I still feel angry/ I’m searching for the reason,” they sing in unison on closer I Like That You Can See It, which perfectly sums up the prominent themes of the record. Girlpool’s debut may not be without fault, but that is ultimately what makes it such a charming little record.