My two favorite groups in high school, Hum and Girls Against Boys, represented a vast stylistic divide in 1990s alternative rock. Hum’s space-rock gazes longingly at the stars; Girls Against Boys’ bass-driven post-punk aims straight for the gut (if not lower). Hum represented the Midwest’s particular brand of introspective guitar rock; Girls Against Boys pulled a lineage of DC punk and hardcore into the postmodern affectations of New York City. Whereas Hum’s lyrical depth and emotional resonance appealed to the core principles of my musical tastes at the time, Girls Against Boys felt like the exception to those rules.
Substance? Girls Against Boys’ style is their substance. Unlike so many other groups dependent upon style, GVSB subvert any noticeable rock clichés through equal doses of brute force, postmodern ironic detachment, and electrifying urgency. Scott McCloud’s raspy charisma winks at any lyric that’s too neat, any setting that’s too clean. Out of context—hell, often in context—individual lyrics sound like mistranslated non sequiturs, come-ons from lounge crooner wannabes, or slurred threats from the menacing guy at the end of the bar. Yet somehow they make perfect sense in the moment of McCloud’s delivery, drawing you into the group’s precise, bass-heavy throb.
There are a few other notable two-bass line-ups from the 1990s—Ned’s Atomic Dustbin’s Grebo Brit-rock, Dianogah’s bass-only instrumentals, Ganger’s Krautrock-influenced post-rock—but Girls Against Boys’ post-hardcore style gels perfectly with Johnny Temple and Eli Janney’s low-end thrusts. Janney alternates between a sampler keyboard and his custom metal bass, and in both situations, his lines add melody and depth to Temple’s solid foundation. Alexis Fleisig’s floor-tom-heavy drumming combines equal parts power and precision, throttling each fill without going overboard or detracting from the group’s focus. It’s rare that a group’s guitarist can be overshadowed by its rhythm section, but McCloud made due, adding texture to the top of the mix, ducking into the lower registers for bonus rumble, and strafing the bassists with razor-wire riffs. Math-rock time-signature fetishists look elsewhere; Girls Against Boys songs locked into their savage grooves and pummeled them into submission.
Many critics now herald Girls Against Boys’ 1993 LP Venus Luxure #1 Baby as a classic of 1990s indie/alternative rock and dismiss the rest of their catalog as dry runs or pale imitation. I can’t disagree with the first part—Venus Luxure is their best record by a fair margin and among my top ten albums of the decade—what propelled me into obsession was the depth of GVSB’s catalog. Sure, their first two releases showed growing pains and Freak*on*ica was a major-label disaster, but even those albums have their rewards. Their Touch and Go years were remarkably fruitful for LPs, EPs, and singles. I’ve chosen to select songs from each major release and a few additional highlights, which means Venus Luxure and its Touch and Go brethren are sorely underrepresented, but you should go out and buy those three albums if you don’t already own them. I’ve included MP3s for the rarer material and YouTube links whenever possible.
“Stay in the Car” – For the start of the group and the Eighties half of this EP, DC-area producer Eli Janney joined Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty and Soulside singer Scott McCloud for some regrettable synth-/sample-heavy industrial post-punk. I view the Nineties half of this EP as the group’s true beginning, since Girls Against Boys immediately hit their stride once McCloud’s former Soulside band mates, drummer Alexis Fleisig and bassist Johnny Temple, joined the fold. “Stay in the Car” starts off with Janney’s shuddering sampler bass, but soon enough Fleisig’s forceful, swinging beat, Temple’s deep bass line, and Scott McCloud’s howling guitar create the first signature GVSB groove. The vague lyrics—“Step one / Stay in the car,” “A pat on the back from the president,” “We need some gun control / We need the Marlboro Man”—might not sound like much on paper, but combined with the group’s locked-down rhythmic drive, these stray phrases evoke an urgent, action movie dreamscape.
“Matching Wits with Flaming Frank” – Girls Against Boys reconvened for their 1992 debut LP, Tropic of Scorpio, but like its EP predecessor, it’s a mixed affair. Between lounge-flavored songs like the “Everything I Do Seems to Cost Me $20” and the noisy experimentation of “Plush,” there’s a lack of focus and consistency antithetical to their Touch and Go output, even if they’re intriguing diversions. Thankfully, the first three songs bridge the gap between this loose approach and the intensity of their later work. “Matching Wits with Flaming Frank” isn’t as dynamic as “My Night of Pleasure (with the Mudjacking Contractors)” or as catchy as “Wow Wow Wow,” but a powerhouse performance from Alexis Fleisig and Scott McCloud’s raspy delivery of “I had to burst into flames” and “Who loves you?” make it the highlight of Tropic of Scorpio.
“Bulletproof Cupid” –The best Girls Against Boys songs add a palpable sense of danger to Scott McCloud’s hedonistic domain, a point perfectly illustrated by the descent into chaos in “Bulletproof Cupid.” Setting the scene with another nighttime, sex-fueled car ride (“Stop the machine / If you see something you could like”) driven by McCloud’s cruise-control-at-85-mph guitar figure, “Bulletproof Cupid” escalates the tension with chants of “It’s a lot more physical right now” and “X-x-x-press it now” above the menacing rumble of Temple’s bass and Janney’s droning keyboard. Soon enough, it heightens to “It’s gonna paralyze you / By the shine of your head” before McCloud slurs “Paralyze you / Til I’m fuckin’ dead.” With that violent end-game on the table, the car veers off the road. Alexis Fleisig pummels everything in sight amidst Janney’s panicked yells of “Lies! Lies!” before the song jerks back into control. It’s a mesmerizing transition cemented by McCloud’s brutal dose of black humor: “Nobody’s perfect.” Anyone could get sucked into this chase for carnal physicality, anyone could veer off course into an unforeseen, violent end. Nobody’s perfect.
“Learned It” – There’s no heavier bass sound in Girls Against Boys’ discography than the initial sucker punch of “Learned It,” a murderous combination of Temple’s bass guitar and Janney’s sampler bass. The doubled bass line reloads its massive, two-note pattern with higher register runs at the end of each phrase, but it never loses its potency. The guitar line? Entirely irrelevant, but McCloud’s “I got one shot” is the perfect refrain for this beat-down. As much as I love this bass sound, I do enjoy this alternate live-in-studio take of the song from their Eight Rounds split EP with Guided by Voices that chooses clean piano over Janney’s usual distorted bass keyboard sound.
I could easily gone with any number of other V-Lux highlights, like the confident charm of “In Like Flynn” (“Say you like that you’re gonna love this”), the woozy pop of “Go Be Delighted,” the straight-ahead chug of “Let Me Come Back” (later turned into a cover of “Boogie Wonderland” for the group’s appearance as a bar band in 200 Cigarettes), or the dream-like calm of “Bug House,” but I’ll reluctantly move on.
“Tucked In” – Not just the opening track for Cruise Yourself, “Tucked In” is its public address announcement. “Is everybody tucked in / Is everybody tucked in / Now that’s what I like to see” posits Scott McCloud as steward on GVSB Comfort Air, hitting New York, Chicago (Chicago Chicago), and Los Angeles. The lyrical repetition is mirrored in the off-kilter, looped bass line and Fleisig’s tom-heavy pattern of the verses, the latter of which finally opens up with the chorus’s carefully controlled feedback and Janney’s panned “Comfort air / Comfort ride / Comfort flex / Comfort zone” backing vocals. Yet “opening up” is misleading—after all, “Way into the trance thing” is the dominant phrase—since the song eschews the chance for a Venus Luxure fever pitch in favor of a melancholic second half showing the wear and tear of the Cruise Yourself lifestyle. McCloud finds “No room to swing” in this new routine and the song ends with a vastly different intonation of the “Is everybody tucked in” mantra. The album switches gears to the double-bass body blow of “Cruise Your New Baby Fly Self,” but it’s telling that GVSB didn’t choose to start the album with “One more time with feeling / One more time with style.” “Tucked In” may not have the head-nodding, ass-shaking grooves of “Kill the Sexplayer,” the desperation of lead single “[I] Don’t Got a Place,” or lurid depths of “Explicitly Yours,” but its idea of GVSB as lifestyle runs through all of Cruise Yourself.
“Magattraction” – When I first saw Girls Against Boys at Mercury Lounge in New York City in the spring of 1998, I’d already picked up virtually everything they’d put out, so hearing them launch into a unfamiliar song was a huge surprise. “Magattraction” was the lead track on the 1994 Jabberjaw: Good to the Last Drop compilation, which also featured Unwound, Jawbox, and the loathed Hole, but it had been extracted as a b-side for the recent “Psycho Future” single. Presumably recorded during the 1993 recording sessions for the superb Venus Luxure #1 Baby, “Magattraction” matches the quality of that record, if not the atmosphere. “Magattraction” teases with ironic catharsis like “Got no rhythm, got no soul,” but with palm-muted pulses, a rumbling bass war, and a shouted climax of “Shake it / Shoot it,” hedonism wins out in the end.
Other Girls Against Boys rarities worth checking out include the lo-fi rocker “Red Bar,” which first appeared on the 1993 Enragez Vous! compilation and was later included as a one-sided single accompanying the initial vinyl pressing of Cruise Yourself, and their cover of Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control” from the 1995 A Means to an End tribute album. Their CD singles aren’t rare by any means, but do feature some solid tracks, especially pre-Cruise Yourself single “Sexy Sam.” It’s the only other non-album cut that rivals “Magattraction.”
“Super-Fire” – Thanks to its light-bulb-smashing video appearing on 120 Minutes, Super-Fire” was the first GVSB song I heard. Between Scott McCloud’s nearly indecipherable phrases (“When you got nothing in the lemon,” “X-head is x-vibe”), Eli Janney’s wah’ed out bass, and the bizarre background noise/vocals in the chorus, it’s a great litmus test for the group’s allure. Not everything is so oblique: that rapid-fire, note-bending guitar lead is killer, the bass groove is seductive, and “Nothing satisfies” could easily be the title of a GVSB bio-pic. McCloud even throws in “Can you decide what the fuck is going on?” as a potentially self-referential lyric. It trades the danger of V-Lux for an endlessly listenable sheen, perfect for the lead single and track from their second-best LP. If memory serves, Girls Against Boys signed with Geffen under the agreement that House of GVSB would be their Touch & Go swansong. Missing out on the polish and poise of House must’ve been a thorn in the side of Geffen and a last laugh for Touch & Go, especially given the quality of what Geffen did release.
“Park Avenue” I’ll offer up a startling admission: I enjoyed Freak*on*ica when it came out. Sure, I missed the Ted Niceley production values, but as a seventeen-year-old participant on the group’s listserv (which netted me a vinyl copy of Freak*on*ica and a now ratty t-shirt from the resident Geffen rep), it was easy to get swept up in the rush of a new album. Did I think it was their best record yet? Of course not, but I sure played a lot of Top Gear on the Super Nintendo with Freak*on*ica as the soundtrack. These songs also sound much better in their set lists than on record, a point that initially made me like this record more. See, these songs aren’t that much different from their previous records! That view soon changed to a recognition that I’d rather listen to albums not utilizing Pitchshifter's aesthetic blueprint.
Despite not listening to Freak*on*ica in years, lead single “Park Avenue” recently crept into my workout mix. Scott McCloud’s opening line “Check your lifespan” was spat back in GVSB’s face by countless reviewers (ha ha, no, you check your lifespan, Girls Against Boys), but “Park Avenue” is still the best song from the record. Janney’s pulsating keyboard build-up, a doubled-up riff from Temple and McCloud, and a solid (if unspectacular) foundation from Fleisig push things forward with polished, mechanical efficiency. The issue with “Park Avenue,” and Freak*on*ica as a whole, is how Nick Launey’s production neuters GVSB’s style. Its predecessor, House of GVSB, was a well-oiled machine, but there were dark places on that album (“Life in Pink,” “Zodiac Love Team”), varied aesthetics, back-alley dealings. McCloud had a smokiness to his voice, like he’d been in the corner booth of a dive bar for the last week and a half. Launey pulled their aesthetic into prime-time, into the safe glitz of the new Times Square the band calls out on “One Firecracker.” Janney’s keyboards become the driving element, turning GVSB into another industrial-lite band. Stray effects clutter the mix, instantly dating the album. McCloud’s vocals are embarrassingly processed, smoothed down to a cartoonish whine. If the best GVSB songs are predicated upon the threat of danger, the worst songs eliminate this possibility entirely. Consider Freak*on*ica their PG record.
“One Dose of Truth” – Given a chance to switch up their routine, Girls Against Boys wrote their most new wave–inspired track for the soundtrack to Series 7: The Contenders, a reality television satire from 2001. Recalling Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” one of the few non-GVSB songs in the film, “One Dose of Truth” combines plaintive synth-orchestra lines, atypically melodic guitar arpeggios, and Eli Janney’s soothing background vocals with some of the group’s most direct, Geffen-taunting hooks. Scott McCloud’s lyrical bent has skewered corrupt popular culture since House of GVSB, so the refrain of “All we need from you / Is one dose of truth” echoes throughout much of their catalog, especially their final album, 2002’s You Can’t Fight What You Can’t See. There’s also an alternate take on this melody on the soundtrack, the short instrumental “I Knew Her…,” which adds some acoustic guitar to nice effect.
“The Come Down” – Tipped off by "One Dose of Truth," Girls Against Boys’ final album completes the switch in Scott McCloud’s lyrics from creating and living in his own private, hyper-cool metropolitan universe to explicitly critiquing the quality of actual popular culture. While the lyrical approach may have changed, You Can’t Fight What You Can’t See returns to the musical template of those Touch and Go albums, loaded with sharp hooks and tight structures. “The Come Down” ventures closest to their old haunts, with McCloud opining “Around here night goes on too long” over a polished keyboard hook from Janney. The spaced-out bridge provides some rarified space for McCloud’s curious serenade of “Like a landslide / Through your mind / I like your style” before closing out with the elliptical guitar riff setting off one final round. “The Come Down” and the album-ending slow-jam “Let It Breathe” form such an evocative combination of bang and whimper that it seems fitting that they haven’t recorded a follow-up.
2009 Postscript – Although they’re officially on hiatus, GVSB still occasionally play shows, usually in Europe (they hit up Poland and Russia this spring). If they ever decide to properly tour the States again, I’ll have to fight the urge to stalk them up and down the East Coast. Scott McCloud released his first LP as Paramount Styles last year, an acoustically oriented project with Alexis Fleisig in tow. Fleisig replaced Damon Che as the drummer of Bellini, who released The Precious Prize of Gravity in May. Eli Janney still produces bands. Johnny Temple runs Akashic Books. If you want go backwards, you can check out Soulside’s Soon Come Happy for a taste of Scott, Johnny, and Alexis’s days in the DC hardcore scene, early Edsel singles for Eli’s falsetto background vocals and sampler, and New Wet Kojak for late-night moisture.
2013 Update - A recent string of European festival dates in honor of the 20th anniversary of Venus Luxure No. 1 Baby turns out to be more than an overseas vacation. Girls Against Boys announced three American dates in September (NYC, Philly, and DC) and, more importantly, a new EP. You can hear the new song "It's a Diamond Life" via Soundcloud.
Two added side gigs: Alexis Fleisig now drums in Obits alongside former Drive Like Jehu / Hot Snakes vocalist Rick Froberg and former Edsel frontman Sohrab Habibion. Eli Janney does the production-centric Input Output podcast with another former Edsel member, Geoff Sanoff. Closing that loop, Janney and Sanoff have produced both Obits LPs.