Opinion | Is this the birth of an all-woman supergroup?
Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers are rising solo stars who've come together to collaborate on a great album, boygenius
Many people credit the 1960s’ band Cream as being the first supergroup in rock music. Formed in the mid-1960s, it had guitarist Eric Clapton (from the Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers), bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker (both from the Graham Bond Organization). Cream released four studio albums and lasted two years. Clapton and Baker then recruited singer Steve Winwood and bassist Rick Grech to form another supergroup, Blind Faith, which recorded one excellent eponymous album before breaking up. Formed by musicians who have successful careers, either as solo artists or as part of another band, supergroups are often short-lived, flaming out after a few albums.
A few last longer, though. As Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (CSNY) did memorably. Some others, such as the Traveling Wilburys with its line-up of heavyweights (Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne), were short-lived but left a treasure for fans (the Wilburys’ two studio albums are excellent). The supergroup concept has remained alive in rock and pop but also in opera (when Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo, and José Carreras joined forces to form The Three Tenors). Some supergroups, such as 1990’s Temple of the Dog, formed by Chris Cornell as homage to Seattle’s erstwhile grunge band, Mother Love Bone, kick-started the career of Eddie Vedder and his band, Pearl Jam. Others evolved as parallel side projects for already successful musicians: The Deadweather (Jack White, Allison Mosshart and others), and Monsters of Folk (Conor Oberst, Jim James and M. Ward).
Yet, the supergroup phenomenon has largely remained a boys’ club with few instances of women musicians collaborating to form one. Largely because in the past several decades, women musicians and all-girl bands have routinely been discriminated against—by promoters, record labels, and also the media. Back in the late 1980s, singers Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris formed Trio, which released two noted albums but there aren’t many more instances of all-woman supergroups. Last month online music magazine Pitchfork ran an article (“A Brief History of Women-Led Supergroups") that listed around a dozen but with a couple of exceptions, not many of them are very well known.
That could change now—with boygenius (in lower case and with some irony in the first part of the portmanteau). Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers are in their early 20s, and each one already has a solo career that has earned them plaudits. Dacus, an indie-rocker with two released albums, is gifted with an unadorned, comforting voice and writes songs that are thoughtful, wise and wry. In Night Shift (from her second album, Historian) she sings: Am I a masochist/ Resisting urges to punch you in the teeth? / Call you a bitch and leave?/ Why did I come here?/ To sit and watch you stare at your feet?/ What was the plan?/ Absolve your guilt and shake hands? Also two albums old, Baker, whose music is described as slowcore, uses sparse, drum-less compositions to sing lyrics that are intensely emotional. Bridgers, who is more of a folk-pop singer, released her first full length album last year but has already been acclaimed by critics who are comparing her to Laura Marling and Elliott Smith.
Dacus, Baker and Bridgers are only at the beginning of their solo careers, each of which already seem highly promising and yet, last month they joined together to create boygenius and release an EP of just six songs. Clocking in at barely 22 minutes, the self-titled album has been making waves. And already the three have earned the sobriquet of “supergroup". Why? First, because boygenius is a remarkably good EP. Each of its six songs stands out. Dacus’ earthy, indie rock, Bridgers’ folk-pop simplicity, and Baker’s emotional intensity combine like the key ingredients of a great recipe and the result is an album that leaves you yearning for more. The second reason why the tripartite project is earning praise is because of its systematic execution. Each of the three brought to the studio a nearly finished song, and one skeletal idea for a track that they could work on together. As a strategy, that worked.
The EP opens with Bite The Hand on which Dacus sings the lead, the unadulterated earthiness of her tone balanced by the higher notes that the other two sing as back-up vocalists. Their voices weave in and out with each other in the beginning before ending in a striking harmony. On Me & My Dog, a Bridgers’ song about love, she sings: We had a great day/ Even though we forgot to eat/ And you had a bad dream/ Then we got no sleep/ ‘Cause we were kissing, while jangly acoustic guitars rise to a frenzy. That’s a thing about boygenius. More often than not, their songs begin quietly before turning lively and then climaxing powerfully.
All six songs on boygenius are beautifully crafted and sung—the first three that each of them brought to the studio nearly-finished; and the next three that they worked on together—but the icing on top of the EP is the last track, Ketchum, ID, a song about being on the road and missing home. The three do the recurring harmony verse together : I am never anywhere/ Anywhere I go/ When I’m home I’m never there/ Long enough to know. Constant touring and thoughtful lyrics are what the three young women have in common but it is really their unique styles that combine to make boygenius a super album. Could this be the birth of a new supergroup? Many of us are hoping so, fingers crossed.
The Lounge List
Five tracks to bookend your week
1. ‘Me & My Dog’ by boygenius from ‘boygenius’
2. ‘Ketchum, ID’ by boygenius from ‘boygenius’
3. ‘Nightshift’ by Lucy Dacus from ‘Historian’
4. ‘Motion Sickness’ by Phoebe Bridgers from ‘Stranger In The Alps’
5. ‘Sour Breath’ by Julien Baker from ‘Turn Out The Lights’
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.
He tweets at @sanjoynarayan