It doesn’t usually happen that I meet friends at a gig down at Oxford’s The Cellar; most of the time, the basement is half-empty if it’s not a student-run club night. But tonight, I recognise more than a handful of faces. There’s Kim and her friends, and over there a group of people from my college, and then next to me a girl who I swear I’ve seen from afar at End of the Road. There are even two people who have featured on my radio show, one of whom is the promoter Future Perfect‘s Simon. Apparently there is something about Girl Ray that draws a crowd, a crowd that’s different than usual (more students!). Part of the turn-out might be ascribed to the band members’ youth and relatable lyrics (“I guess there’s nothing wrong with / Saying I’m bored”). But maybe it’s just because they are that good.
Although the crowd is lively, Girl Ray has no time for small talk. It’s only after the third song that they introduce themselves, and even then it’s an introduction of the minimal variety. There is something uncompromising about the way the trio behave themselves on stage, with no talk and no smile – it is as if we are there to please them, instead of the other way around. But of course, why should they smile? Firstly, despite their diary-lyrics, there is nothing frivolous about this band; they are as serious as can be. And secondly, there is nothing wrong with a reluctance to conform to standards. Indeed, it’s a fitting mode of performance for them, given that musically they are equally resolute. Sure, Girl Ray have a few genuinely crowd-pleasing hits, of which ‘Trouble’ is the most familiar. But that song occurs late in the set, and the first two or three tracks they play tonight are some of their thinner, more contemplative and dissonant ones. That the first sentence lead singer Poppy Hankin utters is ‘Stupid Things’ opening line “I’m so down” is telling.
I have described Girl Ray’s music as prog-rock before. Not that they immediately sound like Yes or Genesis, but there is a certain quality, a certain English way of going about things, that resembles Pink Floyd (as well as The Kinks) as much as The Beach Boys. You only have to listen to the Procol Harum organ on ‘Cutting Shapes’, or otherwise their giant, as of yet untitled rock-out towards the end of the set. And then I haven’t even mentioned the over ten-minute-long song titled ‘Earl Grey (Stuck in a Groove)’, which they do play live, and which definitely sounds like the fourth movement of ‘A Saucerful of Secrets’. At the same time, Girl Ray rid themselves of prog’s worst (masculine) tropes: its borderless self-indulgences and meaningless excesses. Instead, they give us a version that’s simpler, more to-the-point while at the same time avoiding their forebearers’ ostentatious directness. Girl Ray’s is a Victorian sort of prog-rock. It’s not Pink Floyd, but Pink Floyd’s diary.
Given all that, I am all the more surprised that not only so many people did come to Cellar, but that they all left unsated, ready for more. It could be that I underestimate Girl Ray’s appeal, or overstate their sonic complexity. In any case, it is more than deserve, because theirs was a solid gig and I hope they’ll come back to Oxford soon. One of the pleasures of listening to music made by young people is that there is plenty to look forward to.
-- Caspar Jacobs, November 20, 2017