words by emily reily
Guitarist and singer Poppy Hankin, of the North London lo-fi trio Girl Ray, seems down about a lot of things. Her soft-edged, whispery vocals on Earl Gray lament boy crushes, loneliness and teen angst. But listening to dreary love stories couldn’t be a lovelier endeavor than through indie pop newcomers Girl Ray.
Hankin, drummer Iris McConnell and bassist Sophie Moss, all 19, founded Girl Ray (the name a nod to artist Man Ray) when they were 16 – during that magical, maddening time in your life when everything is completely wrong, yet you’re having the time of your life. Seeing existence through that lens, it’s easy to see why they’ve chosen these myriad precious influences – among them The Beatles, Pavement, Cate LeBon, ABBA and the Beach Boys. But instead of leaning on lavish, grandiose production similar to other soft rock/pop trios, Girl Ray is often introspective, painting scenes of subtle observations through a dreamy pop guise of ‘60s wistfulness, centered around a heart of ‘70s teen angst and wryness.
It’s almost a guilty pleasure to listen to the spacious vocal harmonies and unrefined pop experimentation on Earl Gray. Hankin’s feathery voice lingers, unhurried, alongside gorgeous soaring melodies that aren’t scheduled to lose any of its quaintness for years to come. Hankin also smartly allows her human flaws to appear at times. After she briefly (and adoringly) struggles to stay in tune on “Stupid Things (Reprise)” she’s content with simply relying on feelings and mood to carry the remainder of the song, with exhaling breath as the only vocal accompaniment.
On the bright, piano studded “Stupid Things,” Hankin sings of how much she admires a boy and openly frets about trying to get his attention. The lines “You’re so cool/ dunno what I’d do/ if you said/I like you too” couldn’t be a simpler, or truer, pop lyric, and it’s nestled in ‘70s Rundgren harmonies and The Beatles’ vocal clarity.
The poppy, bright instrumentation on Earl Gray often takes unexpected turns too, such as “Earl Gray (Stuck In a Groove)” a 13-minute journey of hazy memories and tiptoeing keyboards that contains a psychedelic mantra which expands, accelerates, and later slows, bringing along pan flute and trumpet for the ride. “A Few Months” veers toward progressive rock touches with interwoven guitar notes and tempo changes. And the group lets go musically on “Cutting Shapes,” eschewing convention for a guitar rock mashup finale.
Their tightly woven tunes can barely contain emotions that range from blue-sky happiness to dark self-doubt. The indie rock romp “Just Like That” is all feel-good jangly guitars, with three-part harmonies that immediately recall the brooding, heady days of Rubber Soul. On other songs, though, Girl Ray feels like more of a self-examination, a search for coping mechanisms.
On the slow, folksy piano musings of “Monday Tuesday,” Hankin sings of “Waiting in my room/ waiting for myself to come through” as days bear down. Diffused through the soft edges around her vocals, Hankin gives constant reassurances of “You’ll be okay soon,” a consolation that may be the hardest to accept.
‘Earl Grey’ is out now, via Moshi Moshi
You can buy it here