Another week, another release from an Irish four-piece art-rock band beginning with ‘Girl’, but while Dubliners Girl Band have the luxury of being new, barmy and innovative enough to do whatever they want and have it raved over, Belfast’s Girls Names are tasked with the trademarked difficult third album, on the back of the highly acclaimed The New Life two years ago.
And so we have Arms Around a Vision, an album that front-man Cathal Cully says is born from a “hand-to-mouth” existence in the Northern Irish capital. Indeed, Girls Names are one of surprisingly few bands to really provide a soundscape of life in a Northern Ireland with a harsh and violent past, and a somewhat isolated presence. The big difference between this and Girls Names’ previous work is that Cully’s vocals are brought much more to the forefront. On The New Life, they blend into the mix of gloomy guitars and C86 effects, but here, the front-man’s grave and echoing voice is allowed to become the focal point of the songs.
And it’s a voice that deserves to be heard in its own right rather than as part of an ambient landscape of doom-laiden riffs and lo-fi electronics, with its balance of venom and tenderness reminiscent of a young Edwyn Collins, and in keeping with the dark yet vulnerable themes of Girl Names’ output. But despite Cully’s claim, the album is actually something of a move away from the griminess of The New Life, and towards a cleaner production. Opener ‘Reticence’ begins in typically clangy, bassy fashion, but becomes progressively jangly as it goes on, before ending with a siren that leads into ‘An Artificial Spring’ – a track that’s almost light and breezy in parts. Still, it’s a sharp start to the album, and the two tracks are sure to kick off the proceedings during their current UK tour.
There’s a haunting quality throughout Arms Around a Vision too, with the two parenthesized instrumentals breaking the tracks up with a mysterious loop of music, and ‘Desire Oscillations’ peppered with Pac-Man style low-tech beeping and whirring. ‘Chrome Rose’ is reminiscent of Trompe Le Monde-era Pixies, with its distant and repetitive chorus, while single ‘A Hunger Artist’ also delves into the past, with its video paying a cheeky nod to 1980s regional TV.
The album does feel like it’s plodding along a little too much at times, with perhaps one too many Joy Division-esque bass intros, and a similar pace throughout. Mid-album tracks like ‘Malaga’ and ‘Dysmorphia’ seem to fizzle out before they’ve really got going, leaving a frustrating sense of a band that haven’t quite nailed the new sound with which they’re experimenting.
Thankfully, a record that’s beginning to feel a little lost and one-paced finds its feet with three excellent closing tracks. ‘Exploit Me’ is the best song on the album for me, really making the most of the tough yet fragile nature of Cully’s voice, as he implores “exploit me, take control, for I am yours and yours alone” over an intense chorus, then tugs at the heartstrings as he asks “how can I protect you when I can’t protect myself?” It’s assertive and submissive at the same time, and shows off the band at their Jekyll and Hyde best. ‘Take Out the Hand’ also ushers in a welcome dose of murkiness, and the slow-paced, echoing ‘I Was You’ brings the album to an atmospheric and satisfying end.
It’s not too little too late as such, because Arms Around a Vision is a solid album, but ‘solid’ is a horrible word that’s better suited to a sturdily built shed or an unglamourous defensive midfielder than a record. There isn’t a bad track here, but there also isn’t really a standout one either. This means that, for both the right and the wrong reasons, it’s not an album likely to have you reaching for the skip button. The next challenge for Girls Names is to give Cully’s voice the centre stage without sacrificing on their distinctive and moving sound.
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