Loud and waver-y and freaky and fragmented and brilliant.
Stranger Today marks the proper launch of Brighton trio Our Girl, a band that, if this, their debut album, is anything to go by, the world will be hearing from for quite some time yet. With Stranger Today Our Girl collects together a handful of their previous releases and a bunch of new releases into an album that sounds like a shoegaze garage rock band with an indie rock sheen/sensibility; none of the pretension exists, just brilliant songs and playing from all of the members. Throughout the album, even as instruments drop in and out of the mix, there’s a full sound to the instrumentation that makes it all lush and satisfying whilst sacrificing none of the grit. Because it is gritty. It is dirty. It is loud and waver-y and freaky and fragmented and brilliant. Lead guitarist and vocalist Soph Nathan (also active as lead guitarist for band The Big Moon) pairs her beautiful, sometimes fragile, vocals with a loud, gregarious guitar tone that struts along and makes itself known immediately. Even in acoustic-ish tracks (such as ‘Level’ and ‘I Really Like It’) there’s a sense that the sound from the guitar is damaged and on the verge of breaking – in the best possible way.
From the get-go, were someone to listen to only the very first ten seconds of the album’s opening track (self-titled ‘Our Girl’), they’d be shocked by the direction of the album. Immediately the track feels ornate, atmospheric and lush, like a soundtrack instrumental, but it kicks in with the rest of the band and the energy ticks up immediately. As it starts out, there’s a similarity, sonically, to Scottish alternative rock band Paws’ track ‘Sore Tummy,’ with a looseness about it that suggests an extreme and well-deserved confidence off the back of the strength of the material on the album.
As some songs on the album had been released in the past, the evolution of the band’s sound can be clearly heard as they’ve moved towards finding their current sound. Earlier cuts of ‘Being Around’ and ‘Two Life’ push Nathan’s vocals further back in the mix, and the overall sound is one of less restraint. While Stranger Today doesn’t strike listeners as a particularly restrained album, Our Girl clearly pulled the reins in just enough to clean up the songs for the album. Ultimately the songs retain their power and grit, just with better mixing. Cleaned up, however, the song’s present further possibilities for grunge – one such example is ‘Two Life,’ which was previously released on the band’s 2016 EP ‘Normally’ (which also contains an early cut of ‘Being Around’). In the first verse, when Nathan sings "I see you and you want love", the "I" grates and catches, like it came from somewhere primal and vicious and emotional inside of her. It calls to mind comparisons to Kurt Cobain’s vocal performance in 'Where Did You Sleep Last Night' in Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance. It's gloriously raw and affecting. Another glorious vocal moment comes during ‘Heat’ with the final “again,” which sounds like it will almost fall apart in Nathan’s mouth, so tortured and broken it sounds, rolling around at the top of her register and splintering.
The rhythm section made up of Josh Tyler on bass and Lauren Wilson on drums, anchors the band. Playful as Nathan’s guitar playing may be, and contradictory yet complementary as her vocals may be to the fuzzy nature of her dirty guitar tone, it’s when the whole band kicks in after periods of just Nathan singing and playing her guitar that the songs take off. There’s a deceptive complexity to the album’s material; Nathan’s guitar playing is an obvious place to point this out, but it’s also notable that the drum fills come more often than is immediately expected, or even noticed, so well incorporated they are, and Tyler isn’t merely chugging away at his bass on root notes, sometimes clearly opposing the guitar’s path or making his own way through the track. Nathan’s vocal melodies are a source of clear thought and deliberation – it’s never when you most expect her to break out into a visceral delivery that she does, it’s usually immediately afterwards when the listener has accepted the lack of energy increase. One such example is ‘Being Around’, there’s a restrained sense to the vocal delivery, and just as you’re expecting Nathan to cut loose and (hopefully) scream or shout or break into a higher register with some sense of the evolution of the melody, she instead reverses. This comes when she sings “I can feel it taking shape,” the expectation that the word “shape” will explode out of her by that point, but instead she drops down in pitch and volume before coming back up to where the listener expected her, with the next line.
But hidden complexity and a grimy sound aren’t enough, and Our Girl wasn’t prepared to stop there anyway. The band’s lyrics are abstract, free-floating explorations of intensely empathetic human moments. On ‘Our Girl’ Nathan sings about the frustration felt when dealing with people who don't express themselves or their feelings, so as to be nice or for fear of upsetting people with their own upset character: "you promised to tell me how you were/ don't be so nice." ‘I Really Like It’ finds Nathan “sitting in the living room/ smoking for nothing hoping for you.” She wonders “do you even notice that I’m here at all?" The chorus arrives with what is either sarcasm or an attempt to convince herself of the truth of her repeated statements, as Nathan proceeds with "I really like it/ I really like you/ I really want it/ I really like you". The latter "I really like you" sinking down into a realization that something is wrong here when there are strong emotions from one party, and the other parties complete lack of recognition of their presence. ‘Level’ confronts the listener with a dual-meaning almost-falsetto delivered line (perhaps the highest melody found by the point on the album), "It’s never gonna be better/ no one will ever be better." It’s a line that has possibilities encompassing both positivity and resignation; perhaps it’s a line about the fact that things are great and can’t ever get better, but also perhaps it’s a line about accepting that people don’t really change or ever get better.
Throughout, Stranger Today is an album that captivates its listener with lyrics worth paying attention to, instrumentation to get lost inside, riffs to air-guitar your ass off to, and song structures that roam the board. Some songs are short and sweet and simple (‘Being Around’) whilst some extend themselves into extended jams (album closer ‘Boring’). Tracks wind their way down as they reach the finish line, audibly slowing down to a crawl before they die out (‘Two Life’) and other songs quicken their pace as they race towards the end before spiralling out into a dizzying rush of drums and guitar (‘In My Head’). It’s an album where no few tracks stand out above others, particularly, because every track demonstrates something wonderful that can be found on Stranger Today, which is an incredible debut.
Listen to Our Girl - 'Stranger Today' in full below