I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it differently — there’s a distinct, elevated echelon of songs and albums that manage to both entertain and offer up new perspective on something you thought you had a handle on. For me, it usually happens in relation to words. Most recently, Jason Isbell’s Southeastern took the word “down” and turned it on its head via some gorgeous, wilting guitar work and an overarching narrative of hard-earned serenity. I’ll never look at the hierarchical relationship between “up” and “down” the same way. Black Girls’ new album Claire Sinclaire gets to that transcendent point, proving enjoyable in the extreme while bringing on its own haunting redefinition.
People throw the term “highly anticipated” around, but it’s fair to say that expectations were way up there for Claire Sinclaire. Shannon Cleary’s recent piece for RVA Magazine did a wonderful job of describing the atmosphere Hell Dragon’s follow-up was born into — one in which the attention and momentum they’d generated in the past few years could have worked for them or, in a universe where Claire Sinclaire wasn’t as excellent as it is, against them. If you go back and look at what’s been written about them — just take the snippets on the “About” page of their website — a theme emerges. Phrases like “commercial potential,” “meteoric rise,” and “let’s get the word out on them” are everywhere, painting this picture of a hot, up-and-coming group. A band that’s worth your attention right now but still has things to do. A band with promise.
That’s what Claire Sinclaire got me thinking about. Promise. The good side of having it, the dangers it comes with, and just how personal seeing promise in someone or something can be.
Before going any further, let’s make one thing clear: The surface level assertion here — that Black Girls are a band made up of talented musicians who are pointed in the direction of success — has never felt more correct. Claire Sinclaire offers a litany of moments in which you can sit back and admire the band’s strengths. Their knack for setting a specific mood, which they do masterfully on grimy second track “Banging L.A.” Their ability to channel surf rock in a way that feels timeless, like on “Buyin’ Time.” The smart layering of guitar sounds, and Mike Bryant’s chameleonic lead guitar, which reminds me more and more of Steve Cropper’s work with Booker T. & the M.G.’s. Their use of falsetto, which plays as well here — especially on “Kaleidoscopes” — as it does at their shows in the context of call-and-response. And of course Drew Gillihan’s voice, which has more facets, modes and precision than you’d ask of any instrument that didn’t pull A/C power from a wall socket. After hearing this stuff, it’s not hard to see why people considered Black Girls to be promising in the first place, and for those of us who have been following the band, Claire Sinclaire is evidence that our high expectations were well-calibrated. The shoe fits. When it comes to Black Girls, promise abounds.
But there’s a darker side to other people setting expectations for you. Promise begs delivery, just as a promise you’d make to someone you cared about begs to be fulfilled, and a band’s hopes for the future don’t always align with what other people had in mind for them. How many times have you heard people say that a follow-up album wasn’t what they were hoping for? I was thrilled when I heard Vampire Weekend’s Contra, but a good friend who was just as crazy as I was about the group’s debut hated the direction they’d chosen with their sophomore effort. The same thing happens in other areas of life. Friendships dissolve because people thought you’d continue along a certain path. Bosses hire you and expect you to be a person you’re just not. It’s natural for the band-fan relationship to undergo a process of creative destruction — picking up new fans while losing others — and it’s unreasonable to expect everyone to like your new album, no matter how fantastic your last one was. That’s why there’s so much magic in a new release. Each one is pivotal, especially when people are applauding your potential. Musicians get to write their own destinies in a way that few professionals can, and because of how treacherous that type of trailblazing can be, it’s extra rewarding when the path they carve out leads right to your doorstep.
I got to interview Black Girls for an RVA Magazine article when Hell Dragon was being prepped for release, and one of my favorite parts of that experience was talking about what music was important to them. Some of the bands they mentioned — Steely Dan, The Meters and The Temptations in particular — were groups I knew were revered but hadn’t yet explored, and that conversation gave me a big push in the right direction. Just a few days later, I watched an hour-long documentary about the making of Steely Dan’s Aja, which led me to pick up a used copy of the album, which led to more vinyl purchases, and next thing I knew, Steely Dan was a part of my life. I have Black Girls to thank for getting that started. So when I was listening to Claire Sinclaire for the first time and got to the “drop out of high school” line in “Soul Tornado,” with its decidedly Dan-like pastel coloring, it felt profoundly right, like the universe was falling into place. The same thing happened with respect to The Meters via the rhythmic muted guitar that punctuates “Lover,” and The Temptations via the step-ladder backing vocals and quarter-note snare in “Buyin’ Time.” It’s one thing to name-check bands in an interview, it’s another to make an album that gracefully articulates your influences while sounding like you. It’s still Black Girls, it’s still snuff rock, but the component parts feel even more vivid and realized, like when you say the right thing in the right moment and feel certain that you’re unearthing the version of yourself you’ve always wanted to project.
While I’m excited to see the band go in these directions — in some ways this is exactly the follow-up I would have wished for — the truth is that the expectations that Black Girls seem to be meeting are the ones they set for themselves long ago. In the end, that’s the most meaningful kind of promise — the potential you see in yourself and strive to live up to. I feel lucky to be hearing that effort unfold via their albums, and I’ll treasure Claire Sinclaire as a model of promise fulfilled.