If you’ve followed my site for a while, you may have noticed I’ve been on hiatus from writing record reviews for almost a year. Balancing a full-time job on top of running a blog and a podcast has only made writing more difficult. I fell out of love with reviewing albums once I noticed that my reviews were turning into transactional favors for artists I wasn’t all that fond of. There are only so many college-essay-level press releases I can bear to look at before my capacity to enjoy a record is tarnished before I’ve even listened to it. I violently squirm every time a new subject line pops into my inbox declaring that I “HAVE TO REVIEW THIS SHIT-HOT NEW ARTIST.” Well, joke’s on you, Publicist #479800, I don’t have to do anything.
But on May 30th of this year, I received an email from Kaitlin Pelkey, who I can confidently say is one of the most talented individuals I’ve had the pleasure of calling a friend since moving back to New York City a year and a half ago.
Pelkey is a music teacher and Berklee graduate residing in Ridgewood. She is also the frontperson of the New York-based rock and roll outfit Big Girl, a band that blends the whirring sonic tapestries of Deerhoof with the unique vocal dynamics and girls-to-the-front pathos of Sleater-Kinney.
The first time I ever saw Big Girl live at The Sultan Room in Bushwick, all the hair on my neck and arms stood on end and I couldn’t move. I simply stood still, mouth agape as I watched Pelkey and Co. beckon the audience to join them on a thrilling ride. It was like the ocean: I was both in awe and afraid of the power it had over my body and mind. Soaring choir-like backing vocals clashed with athletic guitar playing and circus-like choreography. Backing vocalists Christina Schwedler and Melody Stolpp effortlessly complimented Pelkey’s inimitable charisma, like a clergy of Pentecostal preachers giving a twisted sermon with the biting wit and sass of schoolgirls. After that, it became easy to spot first-timers at their shows because I would look around the room and watch all the hair on their arms stand up too.
So when Pelkey emailed me the masters for Big Girl’s debut album Big Girl vs. God and said “A review would be really cool,” I couldn’t say no. So allow me to take you on a track-by-track journey through every hill and valley on Big Girl’s ambitious eight-track debut – one that’s been a long time in the making.
1. Instructions 2 Say Sorry
Big Girl vs. God opens with “Instructions 2 Say Sorry,” a biting tell-off driven by irresistibly catchy staccato guitar licks. Since first hearing this song in September of last year, that 2-note opening riff has lodged itself in my brain and eight months later, it still won’t leave. Pelkey’s dynamic delivery is both calm and cutting, giving way to a build that culminates in cathartic screams in the satisfying transition from the pre-chorus into the chorus, sneering, “What’s it gonna take / For you to pick the phone up / For you to write a letter / Do you really need instructions to say sorry?”
2. Black-Eyed Susan
“Black-Eyed Susan,” is a dazzling ode to a free-spirited woman who’s “in love with the bruise on her face,” and “forgetting her name.” The Susan figure that the song is centered around is a scrappy, uninhibited, and wonderstruck individual, and that’s what makes her so charming. In spite of Susan’s strong proclivity for finding trouble, you still can’t help but admire her ability to see the beauty in the overtly mundane, gritty and downtrodden aspects of life. We could all use a friend like Susan.
The third track, “Forever,” is a slow burning dirge, opening with Pelkey quietly uttering the words “Forever? No, I hadn’t thought about forever” over a syrupy guitar glide that sounds like it could either be slide guitar or lap steel. This lilting ballad is as transparent as Pelkey gets when it comes to addressing the loss of her mother. Losing a parent is complicated, messy, and never easy. When they go, it feels like a part of you dies with them. Pelkey’s writing masterfully conveys exactly how this feels in the lyrics, “All that’s left in your place is your shape and your name and the stain of life that’s not forever, each second feels more like forever.”
4. Summer Sickness
“Summer Sickness,” opens with delicate acoustic plucking, with every other instrument in the mix slowly layered on top one by one, starting with the drums, followed by a siren-like guitar with swaddling heaps of reverb and delay. The song’s build is slow and satisfying, and while the unique structure lacks the typical verse-chorus progression, the real draw is in the tension built by the instruments coupled with the triple force of Pelkey, Schwedler, and Stolpp’s voices. As soon as it gets to the refrain, the tension breaks, kicking listeners in the face as Pelkey belts over blistering distortion, “My mother dreams of flying.”
Alright, nerds. The time has come to whip out the music-historian encyclopedia for this one. “Cadillacs” is a bewitchingly enticing incantation that calls to mind early Bully with echoes of “Shake Some Action” by the Flamin’ Groovies. Opening with a menacing bassline and tambourine, the song rips apart the fallacy of gluttony, fame, and luxury (“Celebrities like you and me and god are just some other deadbeats / Drumming up the dream”).
6. Mother Tongue
A grandiose ditty about letting go of the unhealthy conditioning we internalize early in life, “Mother Tongue” feels like it could have been a B-side to Sleater-Kinney’s The Woods. It has all the distorted feedback and larger-than-life delivery that made that album a modern classic. Halfway through the song, the instruments take a sharp 180, dropping all the way from 145 to 65 BPM in a sprawling, distorted breakdown bordering on operatic.
7. Big Car Full of Mistakes
The secret to keeping a listener engaged during a seven-minute song is to prioritize dynamics throughout the run-time while also giving the listener a juicy hook to sink their teeth into. In this case, it’s the song’s refrain: “Dig, dig, dig till you get to the good stuff / It’s a big, big world, and I’ve got a big car.” Now let’s play a game called “How many dad rock epics can Izzy compare this song to?” This is Big Girl’s Stairway. Their Free Bird. Their Marquee Moon. Their In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (okay, that last one might be pushing it, but I think you catch my drift).
it’s so pure
Rounding out the album’s runtime, this lo-fi piano-based closing track opens with a waltzy piano riff, with the sounds of wind, rustling trees, traffic, and waves crashing interspersed throughout. The lyrics are no more than eight words. “It’s so pure to have a dream anymore,” Pelkey tentatively chants, her voice breaking in between syllables, touching on a strong urge to reconnect with a universal childlike wonder that gets stripped away with age. Acoustic comedowns at the end of albums will never cease to be the biggest emotional gut punch to me, and this is no exception.
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