Photo by Gracie Phillips
Los Angeles folk punk duo Girlpool’s Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad met when they were just teenagers at The Smell, a local DIY venue. Since then, they have produced work mapping their maturation as people and as musicians, leading up to the release of their newest album, “Powerplant”. With stylistic decisions such as the addition of a drummer and rhythm guitarist to the album, it is clear that Girlpool is evolving. While these changes may be shocking to Girlpool fans, they come as proof of growth and expansion Cleo and Harmony have experienced since the early days of the band.
Girlpool entered the music world with a self-titled EP made up of straightforward yet piercing guitar and bass paired with almost whiny, yet poignant vocals. Their second album, “Before the World Was Big,” saw a maturation towards their more gentle, often somber drone. With “Powerplant,” the band shifts to a more refined sound, yet loses some of their characteristic youthfulness that drew in so many of their fans, myself included. There was something uniquely beautiful about the purity that came from just guitar, bass, and two voices, often in unison or echo. With the addition of rhythm guitar and drums, the album feels like it has lost some of that openness in favor of more complexity. Now relying less on pounding guitar and bass lines and more on collaboration between all instruments, Powerplant gives a more full sound, with more space to work with creatively, but also more space to stray away from their roots. Yet, even from the beginning of the opening track, “123,” it is clear that the intimate intertwining of Cleo and Harmony’s instruments and voices that developed in their previous work has not been lost in this new album. It is actually a testament to their strength as a duo that Girlpool was able to transition to a full band while still maintaining a connection to their original sound.
I was drawn to Girlpool as a teenager because of their vulnerability and honesty. I felt connections to their songs unlike I had with any other artist. The relatability of their punchy one-liners and openness about their experiences as teenage girls, from intimacy and sexuality, to friendship, to sexism, are both beautiful and empowering. Even in the title of their previous album, “Before the World Was Big,” it was clear that Girlpool was maturing from their youthful candidness. With “Powerplant,” we see the results of this. Gone are the days of straightforward statements like, “I go to school everyday / just to be made a housewife one day,” “I’ll never understand what it is to be a man that is white / ‘cause he never has to fight.,” or the vulnerability of adolescence shown through lines like, “I’m still looking for sureness in the way I say my name.” The lyrics of “Powerplant” are more softly spoken, and venture into more cryptic territory. Now, the band sings about more complex ideas and relationships, likely drawing from the new life experiences they have gained since they first began creating music. It’s harder to grasp the meaning behind many of the new lyrics, yet from lines such as “I get lost at the corner store / Picking up things I’ve never seen before” and “I’m still here I’m digging through the trash / I can hear the train as it moves past,” we can get a sense of the personal changes the band has experienced.
Girlpool’s performance at the Teragram Ballroom on May 23 was beautiful and moving, but lacked some of the emotional intensity I expected from them. To be fair, I had high expectations for this show after seeing them a few years ago and nearly being brought to tears by the beauty of their performance. The deep connection and powerful friendship between Cleo and Harmony is obvious from the moment they step on stage. From their banter between songs, to their carefree dancing and knowing looks onstage, to the effortless intertwining of their voices, I knew I was witnessing something special. Their performance epitomized the beauty of female friendship, and left me feeling inspired and empowered. While I appreciate their efforts to expand the band by adding new members, I couldn’t help but feel that some of this intimacy had been lost at this show. The introduction of a male drummer and guitarist definitely changed the mood of the performance, but I still appreciated the opportunity to see the new Girlpool in action.
However, hearing the new songs played live gave me a greater appreciation for “Powerplant”. The bond between Cleo and Harmony was still present despite the new band members, and seeing this connection helped me feel the emotion that went into producing the album, and just how personal it was for them. Having four instruments on the stage as opposed to two really filled up the space and added a new level of intensity to the songs.
This performance demonstrated the personal changes Girlpool has gone through since I last saw them live. By changing up how they delivered some of their old songs, such as a more upbeat version of “Emily” played with the full band, Girlpool created a new mood for a song with such strong emotions. The maturation that Girlpool has seen since the song was first written pushed it in a new direction. Originally a song of intense nostalgia and longing delivered through delicate finger picking and soft but passionately sung, “I’m still here / Remember me, Emily,” the new version lacked some of this emotional intensity. Although it was still the same song, it felt different, as if the feelings that went into writing the song just aren’t present in quite the same way at this point in their lives.
However, ending the show with Cleo and Harmony’s encore performance of “Cherry Picking,” sans backup band, gave a sense of closure. Despite their musical growth and evolution, Girlpool is still the same Girlpool that I came to know and love as a high schooler, just a bit older and wiser.
The new album is different because Girlpool is different. It’s unreasonable to expect a young band to hold onto their same style when they are changing so much personally as they mature. Originally, I felt ambivalent towards the album because I had such high expectations based on my feelings for Girlpool and the associations I have created with their songs. When it didn’t sound like how I expected, I was disappointed. But after a few more listens and seeing their live performance, I was able to fully appreciate the carefully artistic choices that went into this album, as well as the fullness created by the addition of drums and rhythm guitar. This album is undoubtedly Girlpool’s most mature work thus far, as should be expected from a band comprised of artists that have grown up while producing their music.
It’s actually quite a beautiful thing to watch a band mature, because Girlpool’s fans have been maturing right alongside them. I realized that perhaps I didn’t love the new album because it didn’t provide the same sort of nostalgia that their other albums does. That nostalgia is linked to the fact that I am at a different point in my life than I was when I first began listening to Girlpool. Girlpool is growing up, and so am I.