Monday 8 January 2024

Girlschool - WTFortyFive? (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Hard and Heavy
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 28 Jul 2023
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I was diving into CoKoCon prep when this album came out late last July and lost the opportunity to listen and review, but I wasn't going to lose out on doing that in my catch-up January. I remember Girlschool well from the eighties, though I wasn't around early enough to see them start. I was on board by Running Wild and had caught up with their earlier records by then too, courtesy of them being played on the Friday Rock Show. They were never the most innovative or virtuosic band out there but they never tried to be. Like their frequent tourmates and collaborators, Motörhead, the point was to just play rock and roll.

They do precisely that here on what appears to be only their thirteenth studio album, seven years after Guilty as Sin in 2015, and some of these songs sound just like classic Girlschool, merely with a 21st century production job that's agreeably heavy and clear without being entirely clean. There's always a level of grit in a Girlschool song, even one with the catchiest hook. There's a lot of grit on this album and there are plenty of great hooks, from the very outset on It Is What It Is, which is a strong opener.

The best aspect is exquisitely simple: Girlschool stick to the tried and true approach and turn out a bunch of songs that rock. That's it! You don't need a critic like me waxing lyrical about this aspect or that when that's all they care about doing. It's enough to point out that they do it very well and that, while this is decent on a first listen, it gets better with each repeat. There's nothing fancy in the songs that gradually leaps out for us to notice. It's just down and dirty rock 'n' roll played with a metal edge and an eye to oomph and melody.

However, the worst aspect is pretty much the same thing, not because taking this straightforward approach is a bad idea—it isn't—but because there is one song that feels a little different and it's so impressive that it ends up reminding us that there could have been more songs like this one but there aren't. That song is Cold Dark Heart, which has a real character to it. That's a wonderful riff to underpin everything, even though it's not particularly complex, but the melody, which is hardly complex either, got totally under my skin. It's easily the highlight of the album, but ironically, the rest wouldn't seem like they were missing something if it hadn't been included.

Cold Dark Heart isn't a particularly deep song lyrically but it also sets a mood with its story, which few of the other songs do. Most of them are lyrically unadventurous, settling for routine concepts, like It Is What It Is, It's a Mess and Up to No Good. They're all about exactly what you think they're about and nothing more. I started to look ahead and think what Into the Night, Are You Ready and Party might be about. And yeah, they were.

The only song that might need a little introduction is a classic call out to their fans, Barmy Army, which was the name of the Girlschool fan club way back in the day and still describes the diehards. The only song that tries to dig a little deeper into a substantial subject is Invisible Killer, but it's a song about COVID that would have been spot on three years ago but now feels a little past its due date. It certainly doesn't add anything to the conversation in 2024 when there are probably plenty of important things still to be said.

And suddenly I'm feeling negative, which wasn't my intent. I seriously doubt that you're reading a review of a Girlschool album for innovative music or incisive lyrics. You want songs with huge riffs, catchy hooks and an overriding sense of fun and that's exactly what this album delivers. This is an impressive album indeed from that standpoint and while I can happily say that Cold Dark Heart is a little more metallic, It's a Mess is poppier and Believing in You goes for more of an AC/DC hard rock vibe, there isn't a duff track anywhere to be found.

It also ends well and in particularly touching fashion. Sure, the final track, a cover of Motörhead's Born to Raise Hell, featuring guest appearances from Biff Byford of Saxon, Duff McKagan of Guns n' Roses and Phil Campbell of, well, Motörhead, does nothing new with the song, but it has no need to. What's important is that the previous Girlschool album came out on 13th November 2015, which was a day after we lost Philthy Animal Taylor, a month before we lost Lemmy and a couple of years before we lost Fast Eddie Clarke. That's the entire classic line-up of Motörhead, who were closely connected to Girlschool for decades. I won't pretend I didn't shed a tear listening to this cover.

It's also a firm reminder that, while we all miss Motörhead, we've also missed Girlschool but they are still with us. That's still Kim McAuliffe on vocals and guitars and Denise Dufort on drums, the roles they've played since moment one in 1978. On bass is Tracey Lamb, on her third stint with the band, her first coming back in my day in 1987. The new fish is guitarist Jackie Chambers, who has almost a quarter of a century with the band under her belt, more if you count the years when she was writing with them. This is the old Girlschool, WTFortyFive years in, and they sound as good as ever. Cheers, you lot!

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