The New Life

Girls Names leave their posturing days behind them to get serious on their 'textural, atmospheric' second album

Girls Names have always been a tricky proposition, right from the very beginning. Originally formed in Belfast as a two-piece specifically as the support act for a gig by American surf-pop band Wavves, there has, understandbly, always been a sense that the ‘notion’ of the band has been more important to those involved than the band itself, or its output.

Early singles rode a wave of buzz and hype, with the duo securing a startling amount of column inches from hip publications like Vice and Pitchfork, but it frequently felt like more of an exercise in what a band should be doing, rather than what they wanted to do.

Their debut album, 2011’s Dead to Me, didn’t seem to alter that perception, coming across like an affectionate pastiche of the British indie scene of the mid 1980s, which was undergoing an retrospective renaissance at the time.

Slightly gothy at times, jangly and bright at others, Dead to Me hinted that there might be an interesting proposition in Girls Names. But, frustratingly, there was no confirmation.

The New Life is different, as the title perhaps suggests. Whereas previously Girls Names made a self-conscious noise, always aware of the moves they were supposed to make, The New Life offers up a fresh, organic sound for the band to develop and grow into.

Initially it’s the production that impresses. Dead to Me was seriously hampered by a flat and amateurish production which, rather than being a natural thing, seemed like a deliberate nod to the shambling indie bands of old, imitating something that came about by accident rather than by design.

The New Life, on the other hand, positively sparkles. There is a crispness to the sound that gives this album a brilliant immediacy. Whereas before the sound was buried beneath a sea of reverb, now the guitars glimmer and chime. Everything is atmospheric but also tight and melodic.

Singer/guitarist Cathal Culley has finally emerged from the shadows to take centre stage, his deep, sonorous vocals capable of carrying each song. He projects lyrics in a way that somehow imbues them with meaning, despite the fact that they’re frequently difficult to make out. Whilst we might not hear what he’s singing, somehow we know what he means.

The band, now expanded to a four-piece, ably take their share of the work, with Claire Miskimmin’s melodic bass prominent throughout, whilst Phil Quinn’s additional guitars and keyboards are used sparingly to add texture and atmosphere, never dominating the sound.

The real revelation, however, is drummer Neil Brogan, who’s crisp and precise rhythms propel these tracks along, preventing the whole thing from drifting into a hazy lethargy. In the past his drumming sounded scrappy and flailing, but now he’s like a machine, the nimble beats filling the edges of the sound and taking songs like ‘Notion’ and ‘A Second Skin’ into new, uncharted territory.

But, for all the strides forward that Girls Names have made, they still remain rooted in a well-defined sense of indie rock history, one where The Cure and Joy Division are the biggest bands in the world, and shiny, mass-produced pop music never happened.

This is not entirely a bad thing. ‘Drawing Lines’ is a more energetic version of Pornography-era Cure, whilst ‘Projecktions’ channels the sound of psychedelic Liverpudlian bands like Echo & The Bunnymen or The Teardrop Explodes, but is impressively vibrant in comparison.

Occasionally, listening to The New Life can feel like an exercise in spotting the influences, but I'm never distracted for long. These songs are strong enough to maintain my attention. The New Life is a great leap forward for Girls Names. They might be in thrall to rock history, but that doesn’t mean they’re not going to be a vital part of the future.

Girls Names play the Menagerie in Belfast on February 16. The New Life is released February 18 on Tough Love Records. Listen to the album in full on via