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Audio Reviews
Isn't It Worse
by Hard Girls
Really Records, Quote Unquote Records, Lauren Records (2012)
Isn
I have to hand it to Emile Berliner: the gramophone record is one resilient piece of technological kit. Over a century old and still in regular use amongst the music-loving masses, Berliner’s grooved analog disc has withstood decade after decade of continuous advances from competing audio storage formats, losing ground to the likes of reel-to-reel, 8-track, cassette tapes, and optical discs yet never quite ceding the field. Despite spending close to thirty years outside of the mercantile limelight, to this day, the venerable vinyl record (the more durable and high-fidelity evolution of Berliner’s original, lo-fi, hard rubber and resin discs) remains the archival medium of choice for serious music collectors and dedicated audiophiles alike.

It may seem strange that such a clunky and outmoded medium as the vinyl record has managed to stick around so long past its mass-market expiration date, but it is stranger still that vinyl is enjoying something of a renaissance as of late. Over the past decade or so—running roughly in parallel with the rise of digital music downloads and the attendant implosion of the music industry’s CD-centric, brick-and-mortar retail strategy—the vinyl record has found itself transformed from a fetishized relic, quaint anachronism, and limited-edition rarity to, in a many cases, the only physical format in which new albums are made available. To top it off, there’s also been a sly reentrance into the pop-cultural hive-mind: watch a live musical performance on any late-night variety show from Leno to Colbert, and you’ll likely see the host handling a vinyl copy of the featured artist’s brand-new album.

Yeah, that’s right. Mainstream artists shilling long-player records on network and cable television… in 2012! How unexpected is that?

Indeed, the vinyl record simply will not quit, and for many a good reason. For one thing, there’s a sense of immediacy to the format: its 12x12” covers are boldly graphic and highly visible, far more so than the relatively scant 4.25x4.25” canvas afforded by a compact disc. Moreover, the records themselves are obviously tangible, and are accompanied by a sort of ritualized significance. Rather than simply press a button, click a mouse, or absentmindedly tap a touchscreen, the vinyl devotee needs to ease the record from its jacket, remove it from the sleeve, place it upon the turntable, position the tone-arm, drop the needle, and wait for the diamond tip to find its analog groove; listen, flip, and repeat. Really, it’s a relatively involved process, and the willful inconvenience of the decidedly un-portable and equipment-intensive vinyl record requires a concerted effort from the listener, as well as a conscientious connection to the music—far more so than, say, the background noise of an hours-long iPod playlist or a never-ending Spotify station.

For another, far more pragmatic reason: the stand-alone vinyl record is a relatively “secure” format, insofar as it is much more difficult and time-consuming to manually convert its contents to MP3 than from a standard-issue CD, which helps to preclude, if not outright prevent, the casual ripping, sharing, burning, and bootlegging of albums that has plagued the music industry since the advent of readily-accessible CD-RW and peer-to-peer file-sharing technologies in the late Nineties.

Admittedly, many modern vinyl records, whether brand-new or re-released, come pre-packaged with single-use download codes so that listeners can acquire a legitimate, DRM-free digital copy of the album for portable enjoyment, the existence of which more-or-less makes vinyl’s “security” a moot point. But still. Given the cultural cachet surrounding vinyl as a dedicated collector’s format, the underlying assumption is that those who purchase vinyl records are disinclined towards digital music in general, whether legally-obtained or otherwise, and are therefore that much less likely to participate in legally dubious peer-to-peer file-sharing in the first place. The egalitarian technological advances of the past decade have undoubtedly made it that much easier for independent bands and artists to self-record, produce, and distribute their music via the digital æther, but the music industry has a history that is, as yet, largely grounded in (and built upon) material possessions. As vinyl’s longevity has shown, the allure of the album-as-object remains strong among avid listeners and dedicated collectors, to the point where the modern analog record can be considered something of a concession to those who prefer to have their favourite albums in-hand and on-shelf—a subset of listeners that oftentimes includes the musicians themselves.

Consider, then, that the physical record is a point of pride for artists and musicians, a reminder of their dedication to their craft and a symbol of all that they have accomplished, or yet hope to. After all, what is a certified silver, gold, platinum, or diamond record but a bedazzled recreation of that all-important first pressing? Perhaps even more so than an industry-certified award, the ability for artists and musicians to have their albums permanently in-hand is a sign that they made something—that their contribution matters. The physical record exists in a way that a digital download never truly can. If seeing is believing, then doubtless there is some reassurance to be found in actually holding the fruits of one’s labours.


.

Which brings us, at last, to Isn’t It Worse, the debut full-length album from San Jose’s Hard Girls.

Recorded with longtime soundboard collaborator Skylar Suorez at Sharkbite Studios in Oakland, CA, Isn’t It Worse is the first-ever crowd-funded release from Jeff “Bomb the Music Industry!” Rosenstock’s Really Records imprint. In the run-up to the album’s official debut, Rosenstock and the lads of Hard Girls took to the Internet to raise $3500 in pre-orders and supplemental donations to cover production costs for a then-hypothetical vinyl LP, with a bevy of Kickstarter-esque bonuses—limited-edition posters, t-shirts, ‘zines, demo tapes, and “tasteful nudes”—offered in exchange for larger, wholly optional, and modestly-priced buy-ins.

Fully funded in little more than a week—at which point Hard Girls released an unabashedly sweet thank-you video to their donors, as well as made a full download of the album available for free via Rosenstock’s other imprint, the all-digital, donation-based Quote Unquote Records—Isn’t It Worse is a case study in how the Digital Revolution has upended traditional business practices and redefined the relationship between artist, audience, and album. Rather than rely on contractually-entangled advances from profit-driven record labels in order to mass-produce and distribute a new album (which could very well flop, leaving a whole lot of unsold units and a net loss for artist and label alike), independent bands like Hard Girls have discovered that they can appeal directly to their fan-base via online pre-orders and fundraisers, effectively rightsizing their overhead costs to suit the project in question. Savvy savvy savvy.

Sure, this may mean that bands like Hard Girls can only offer a relatively small number of physical albums to their fans—in this case, a limited first pressing of vinyl LPs from Really Records, plus an additional 250 EP-addended cassette tapes from Lauren Records—but it also means that those albums which do get made end up in the hands of those who really wanted them in the first place, while the perpetual availability of the digital album means that even Johnny- and Jane-Come-Lately listeners can enjoy what Isn’t It Worse has to offer.

And there certainly is a lot to enjoy here. A whip-smart power-trio comprised of members of punk-ish San Jo mainstays Pteradon and Shinobu (who also double as the backing band for Jesse Michaels’ Classics of Love), Hard Girls juxtapose the spastic, angular guitar heroics of Sebadoh and the rumbling bar-rock rhythms of Thin Lizzy with the anthemic passion of Hüsker Dü and the personal-turned-proverbial narratives of the Mountain Goats. Keeping pace with Max Feshbach’s frenetic, perpetual-motion percussion, six-string word-slinger Mike Huguenor trades off lead and backing vocal duties with growling-from-the-gut bass-master Morgan Herrell, their back-and-forth observations on the trials and tribulations of First World subsistence-living coming across like a series of well-placed sucker-punches to the midriff.

Understand this: the bracing body-blows of tracks like “Focus on the Tedium” and “Hot for the Halo”, what with their taut combination of unfocused energy and unsettling visions accented by bright riffs and infectious rhythms, are intended less to put the audience down for the count than to force them to knuckle up and fight back. Sure, dwelling on “shit pizza shit food shit life”, half-empty beds, and dreams of bottomless chasms can be a total buzz-kill, but it’s important to remember that, in spite of such worldly troubles and existential dread, “today is just a stopgap for tomorrow”, even if “all the truths are etched in broken bones when you focus on the tedium”.

That is: feel free to stop and lick your wounds, but don’t forget to learn from your mistakes while you’re at it, and to use what you’ve learned to make yourself faster, better, stronger. Get back up and get back at it, y’dig?

After a bloody first two rounds, “My Buddy Valentine” and “Second Glimmer” return to their corners for a brief respite from knock-down, drag-out dwelling on soul-deadening day-to-day drudgery. Rather, the former serves as a nod to the mindless decompression of a laid-back evening with friends; the latter, an endearing ode to clumsy young romance, all holding hands and sucking face in public spaces.

“Fed by the Eater” beats a tack away from such youthful idylls, its fuzzy riffs, steady rhythms, and reminiscent duets setting a course from innocent childish escapades to adult uncertainty and unexpected expenditures, eventually arriving at an extended instrumental breakdown worthy of J Mascis and Lou Barlow.

Returning to fighting form in “Swamp with Potential”, Hard Girls come out swinging with fists full of punk-rock piss and vinegar, all buzzsaw guitar and punchy percussion turned out in support of internalized anxieties about miscommunication, wasted opportunities, and active avoidance of confrontation:

“And so we say that there’s nothing to say, all the silence and the horror sidle up along the boredom with their stupid rhymes. Why can’t we say what we’re meaning to say? Oh, I swamp with potential but I’m always just singing these stupid fucking rhymes.”

Next up, “Mary-Anne” trades in social anxiety for bittersweet sentimentality. Essentially taking a page from Herrell’s acoustic-fronted side-project I Sing the Body Electric, “Mary-Anne” serves up a country-fried blues ballad about two far-from-perfect lovers trying to make ends meet, and maybe even make a life together. Similarly, Huguenor borrows from his own (roughly autobiographical) solo efforts in “San Francisco”, his electrified busker’s croon proffering a not-so-fond farewell note to hearth, home, and the relentless grip of personal history. Grand slices of life, both, and a nice side-by-side display of the solid songwriting which Hard Girls have to offer.

Still, it’s album-ender “Major Payne” which brings the full force of Hard Girls to bear. Boasting propulsive percussion, thrumming bass, rousing vocals, cutting guitar riffage, and an anthemic assessment of twenty-something ennui, “Major Payne” lands line after sing-along line like a series of precision punches from a veteran pugilist, its short sharp shocks to the senses bringing all the minor tragedies and daily indignities of modern American life into stark relief only to wipe them all away with a playful jab and a reassuring grin in the form of Huguenor’s calming outro—as if to say, “Sure, things may look pretty grim at the moment, but that doesn’t mean that you should just knuckle under this early in the match. Square up and dig deep, ‘cause there’re people out there cheering you on, and you’d better not let them down.”

All told, Hard Girls’ Isn’t It Worse is a stellar full-length debut from an all-around excellent band, one which taps into the bitter core of existential dread lurking deep within the hearts of the Not-So-Young-Nor-Invincibles—whereat it finds, of all things, a sort of hopeful bemusement attached to a stubborn will to survive, to do something that matters, and to leave behind a record for posterity.

Isn’t it worse? Nah. With a band like Hard Girls out there, I’d say it’s pretty grand, actually.


Digitally released on October 16, 2012 by Quote Unquote Records, Hard Girls’ Isn’t It Worse is available in LP and cassette formats from, respectively, Really Records and Lauren Records.
Posted by: Tom Körp

Audio Reviews (October 26th, 2012)

Tags: beatbots, audio, reviews, hard girls, isn't it worse, 2012, really records, quote unquote records, lauren records, shinobu, pteradon, san jose


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