Girl With Fish

Half a decade or so ago, the electric guitar received a wellness check. As sales plummeted and legacy manufacturers slogged through financial straits, concerned parties blamed the popularity of pop, hip-hop, and electronic music, genres more often built from synthesizers and drum machines. Even Paul McCartney chimed in, telling The Washington Post in 2017 that young people lacked “guitar heroes.”

Safe to say that the four members of Feeble Little Horse, most of whom were still in high school at that point, were not tuned into this conversation. The Pittsburgh noise-pop band’s second record, Girl With Fish, speaks to the idea that a younger generation of musicians would recognize the confluence of guitar music and digital sounds as a doorway rather than a death knell. It’s a familiar story, but Feeble Little Horse’s wall of influences—textured shoegaze guitars, exacting pop hooks, idiosyncratic production flourishes—has been wheat-pasted with such vim that it feels fresh and, just as importantly, emotionally resonant.

Feeble Little Horse began as a collaboration between guitarists Ryan Walchonski and Sebastian Kinsler while both were students at the University of Pittsburgh. Jake Kelley joined on drums for 2021’s Modern Tourism EP and Lydia Slocum rounded out the band later that year, signing on as a bassist and lyricist during the hasty recording sessions for the band’s full-length debut, Hayday. Built around sticky melodies and samples both homemade and borrowed—though many of these have since been removed for copyright reasons—the record gleefully jumped from idea to idea.

Hayday’s nimble shapeshifting was prompted in part by a shrinking window of opportunity: With graduation day looming for some of its members, the band imagined there wouldn’t be another chance. But instead of becoming a brief blip in the annals of equine rock, Feeble Little Horse acquired word-of-mouth buzz that encouraged them to stick together. (A deal with Saddle Creek, home to experimentally ambitious contemporaries like Palm and Spirit of the Beehive, couldn’t have hurt either.) Girl With Fish solidifies the notion that Feeble Little Horse’s creative alchemy, born in college dorm rooms and nurtured at DIY basement shows, is a force deserving of further exploration. Remotely self-recorded and produced across various Pittsburgh apartments, its 11 songs are oddball bursts of imagination, whimsy, and discord.

The early minutes of Girl With Fish work overtime to establish the band’s flair for fuzzy pop hooks. The spiky adrenaline of “Tin Man” is especially satisfying, a poetic takedown of emotionally impaired manipulators driven by Kelley’s metallic percussion and a freaky little riff. “I gotta go ’cause you flash sadness,” Slocum sings, a guttural “huh” punctuating the breath between verses. “I found you all rusted and leaky/Took him apart and I found nobody.” The tight opening gallop spotlights the lyrics, abstract fragments from which the band launches equally beguiling arrangements. One of her most delicious lines arrives early on “Freak,” a fuzzy appeal to a crush’s physique: “How can you be satisfied/She’s 5’1″ and you’re 6’5″.”

While Slocum’s lyrical contributions to Hayday arrived at the eleventh hour, on Girl With Fish she now writes with greater confidence, pondering depression, lust, and most strikingly, religion. “Wet bed sheets she bled from the pressure/Plastic Catholic priest watched from the dresser,” goes one haunting verse of “Steamroller.” There’s a grungy charm to her scenes, complemented by the deadpan sweetness of her singing voice. The contrast works particularly well on “Station,” an eloquent, if simplistic, snapshot of loneliness that unfolds atop delicate harmonies and a sound that begins as if cranked out of a haunted music box and expands into a lush revelation. Similarly intriguing is “Sweet,” which opens with a roundhouse kick of blown-out guitars and crashing drums before recoiling into a tightly interlocking riff. Alternating lines, Kinsler and Slocum sketch out a scene that walks the line between innocent and ominous: “I’m only down the street/Can’t keep him out of me/Inviting me to leave/See it in everything.”

At just under a half-hour, Girl With Fish goes for the sprint without ever feeling rushed or overstuffed. Part of this balance is due to Kinsler’s deft digital finagling, which ties together the band’s more eccentric impulses with their melodic foundations. One highlight is “Heaven,” which begins as a downcast lullaby before mutating into avant-alien, as if the band were slurped up mid-song by a psychedelic toad. “Paces” takes the opposite approach, opening with jagged pitched-and-chopped guitars that gradually loosen into dreamy bliss with shades of Duster. Kinsler has cited “overproduced indie rock” artists like Sorry and Spirit of the Beehive as influences, but his style is equally indebted to pie-in-the-sky producers like Pi’erre Bourne, whose tag was sampled in the original version of Hayday’s “Termites.”

But whatever wizardry is happening with the electronics is secondary to the collective intuition that guides Feeble Little Horse’s most mischievous instincts. Girl With Fish hits its apex on “Pocket,” a dynamic late-album highlight that recalls the freewheeling jangle of Swirlies. “All my kisses and hugs/Are burning a hole/In my pocket,” Slocum sings with a brittle sweetness. “Do I make you cringe?” But just as the twee insinuations suggested by the band’s name—that of a dopey, knock-kneed pony—appear to come to fruition, “Pocket” slips into delicate psychedelia and warped tape experimentation. Midway through, around where Slocum sings about using her “imagination to sin” and being metaphorically fucked by “a dead man,” “Pocket” does a 180. Suddenly, Slocum is screaming, the band pulls the pin out of the grenade, and just like that it’s gone: one of many magic tricks on an album that leaves you mesmerized and wanting more.

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