Rock historians might instantly notice something familiar when picking up the self-titled six-song EP from Boygenius, an act comprised of three of the most exciting young voices in independent rock: Julian Baker, Lucy Dacus, and Phoebe Bridgers. The black-and-white photo on the cover directly nods to 1969’s self-titled Crosby, Stills & Nash album, complete with Baker framing her guitar at almost the exact angle as that of Stills. It’s a self-aware homage, sure, and recognition that this very recording will earn the trio the sometimes-dreaded “supergroup” tag.
Yet it also stands as a statement. If the three artists share a basic commonality, it’s that their searing, heartfelt rock often digs deep, sometimes uncomfortably so, into the human psyche. In addition, each Baker release gets compared to that from Dacus and each Bridgers song gets compared to tunes from Baker and on and on. Working in a medium long dominated by dudes can create such fences. And while Boygenius plants heavy roots in the work of 90s alt-rock (think the conversationally personal tone of Liz Phair crossed with the bracing passion of Courtney Love), the trio displays respect for the earthiness of a Crosby, Stills & Nash, the romantic melodicism of a Fleetwood Mac, the emotional sparseness of Elliott Smith, and the sudden thunder of a Frightened Rabbit. In other words, Boygenius comes on as the sound of assured artists who know rock history—inside and out, large and small—and who are carving their own path.
Widely regarded as one of the best films of 2018, Eighth Gradealready has a noteworthy score from adventurous composer Anna Meredith. But the songs of Boygenius would work well in a movie in which a teenaged woman struggles with anxiety to the point where she can barely speak in school.
Indeed, the work of Baker, Dacus, and Bridgers already feels like something of an inner monologue. “I wish I was on a spaceship/Just me and my dog and an impossible view,” Bridgers sings on “Me & My Dog.” Such lyrics double as the sign of someone without a filter. The star of Eighth Grade spends the film learning how to take the voice she suppressed and become front, center, and loud.
For someone unfamiliar with the recordings of Julian Baker, Lucy Dacus, or Phoebe Bridgers, the Boygenius EP is the place to start getting acquainted. It was recorded relatively quickly at L.A.’s Sound City studios, where Boygenius touchstones such as Fleetwood Mac and Nirvana cut standout records. Plus, there’s no guarantee we’ll get a second Boygenius effort. Each artist’s solo career continues to climb. The collaborative project simply sprung from the fact that the three women were due to tour with one another, and initially talked about ending the concerts with a brief set of covers. Thankfully, they decided to craft original material.
The opening “Bite the Hand” seems like an extension of Dacus’ wonderful 2018 album Historian, where she plays an electric guitar softly until there’s no longer a reason to hold back. The lyrics, of friends (or maybe lovers) perpetually out of sync, ripple with tension (“Your hands are gravity while my hands are tied”). Yet the finale turns majestic via a flood of cascading guitars and call-and-response harmonies, all indicating a much-needed relief or sense of freedom.
On “Souvenir,” the trio alternates verses in a song with allusions to nightmares, death, and physical violence. It functions as an abstract, experimental horror show in less than three-and-a-half minutes, all conveyed with minimum, folksy fuss—as if such drama is normal. The Baker-led “Stay Down” probes emotional manipulation, both self-inflicted and from another party, and presents an expressive canvas for her striking, clear, and occasionally piercing voice. Shadowing downbeat guitars, extended pauses, and a shimmering explosion of noise pepper the arrangement.
“Salt in the Wound” and “Ketchum, ID” prove even more expressive. The latter handles exhaustion with a torrent of shoegazing guitars and fire-alarm solos, while the former sees the trio settling into a beautiful, folksy strummer. Taken as whole, the six songs touch on each artist’s strengths, but see each pushing themselves in new directions—resulting in a louder, lusher, and more genre-free album than any of the singer-songwriter’s highly recommended solo works. Let us hope Boygenius is not a one-off.
Mastered in New York by Heba Kadry, who specializes in indie rock but who has worked with such stars as Bjork, what the listener hears is an intimate recording replete with shimmering guitars and subtle touches, like the ever-so-slight synth notes that bring a country tilt to “Souvenir.” Many such nuances aren’t even audible on my digital download.
Matador issued the album digitally and on vinyl, skipping the CD release, and cut the LP at 45RPM. Alas, despite the warmth and details rendered in analog, dynamics are lacking and the vocals could benefit from wider openness and separation. Our copy contained a few pops and ticks that mostly dissipated after repeat spins. Some listeners who obtained Matador’s tri-color vinyl versions reported some imperfections when the colors shifted. None of those deeper flaws surfaced on our black vinyl.
In terms of packaging, some lyrics and more detailed credits would have been nice to see, especially when taking into account how each artist layers songs with cultural, literate, and even biblical references. Overall, however, it’s hard to argue against getting a vinyl copy of Boygenius, which presents a brief snapshot of three significant artists beginning to reach to the top of their game.
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