Thirteen years ago I moved to Little Rock for a job. I’d never been to Arkansas and knew no one. Maybe my fourth or fifth day in town I was walking down my street and passed a woman walking her pug. “You’re new in town,” she informed me. I agreed. She told me that Chinese Girls were playing the next night, and that I would need to come out and see them. So I did. This was just how Little Rock was at that particular time.
Chinese Girls turned out to be a pair of tall, handsome men wearing skinny ties. Guitar and drums. Peddles and reverb. Distortion and delay. They never stopped to talk, lurching from song to song in a groovy, noisy fuzz. The show was at Vino’s or at White Water Tavern or somewhere. The details escape me — this is one of those memories with a vivid center and blurry outlines, as slippery as a dream.
It was dark and musty and I imagine that from the perspective of the band on stage, we looked hypnotized. There was something immersive about their music, something that had us swaying in a collective, boozy trance. These weren’t tunes that got stuck in your head, but rather an experience that lingered: songs that were somehow commanding and distant, vibrations that were hard to hold. If I sound mystical, let’s remember that a band with a cult following is necessarily a religious endeavor. When these two played together … something happened, let’s put it that way. And I was a convert.
I saw Chinese Girls — Andrew Morgan on guitar, vocals and keys and Sam Murphy on percussion — maybe five more times. Morgan, an ex-tennis phenom and electronic music maestro, stuck in town, and he has been in or around more than half a dozen of the best bands and music projects in the Little Rock scene for the past 15 years. But Murphy moved to Philadelphia in 2003. Just like that, a few years after they formed, Chinese Girls were gone.
And so us converts were left to be disciples after the fact. Once upon a time, there was a beautiful band in Little Rock that could unleash spaces in noise and rhythm that felt like a comforting nightmare, that felt like echoes in an artificial cave, that felt like a dance party for ghosts, that felt inexhaustible. And what was left were mostly dubbed cassettes or watered-down CDR recordings that showed up on computers as “untitled track.” Remember, Chinese Girls’ heyday was back before everything was immediately available forever on the Internet. What was left were memories and stories. Scattered photographs and video snippets of performances. They didn’t tour. Their band name is a “search-engine optimization” disaster (feel free to Google “Chinese Girls” but be warned: The results will be not safe for work). Some bands are stars, some bands are comets. Chinese Girls were a singular treasure from a particular place at a particular time.
So let us celebrate and give thanks for the double LP reissue this month from New York’s Drawing Room Records of Chinese Girls’ two albums (the set is available on vinyl in a limited-edition release, as well as an unlimited, downloadable digital version). Times arts and entertainment editor Will Stephenson called the release of “Pop Life” and “Of” — originally recorded between 2001 and 2003 — “virtually a public service to the state of Arkansas,” and that’s about right. The reissues sound great. There it is again: that strange sonic atmosphere, wild things and whispers.
Chinese Girls’ particular version of post-punk noise rock wasn’t radically different from other like-minded bands. I won’t bore you with the standard list of influences and echoes; it’s more fun if you make your own list. So why did Chinese Girls sound so fresh and so jarring? So explosively unique? And, sorry, this is the only word for it: so cool?
I once read a baseball writer ponder the curious brilliance of the dominant pitcher Pedro Martinez. No one pitch, he argued, was so different from other pitchers (other pitchers had fastballs that zipped with the same speed; other pitchers had curveballs with the same sharp break). There was just something subtle about the angles that made “geometric combinations” — tiny advantages that interacted exponentially.
Perhaps something like that is afoot with Chinese Girls. Jangling oddity from familiar tools. A synchronicity of murmurs and rhythms. Call it something subtle about the angles.
“There are no new waves, there is only the ocean,” filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard famously remarked. Let that be an epigraph for Chinese Girls, whose experimental art rock always felt organic and inevitable. Pulses that were meant to be. Sometimes it sounds like bubblegum pop run through a meat grinder. Sometimes like post-apocalyptic lullabies. Chinese Girls were, well, a damn good band, and it brings me great joy that folks who missed their ephemeral run way back when will now be able to dig into these reissues.
As for me, I was expecting something like a nostalgia trip, but that’s not quite what happened as I spent the week gorging on songs I haven’t heard in years. The music was still fresh and moving and meaningful, but there’s something else that struck me. Chinese Girls are still hard to hold. Rock ‘n’ roll is obsessed with immediacy. Chinese Girls were masters of distance. They were a very, very noisy band that whispered. They were pomp and bombast behind a veil.
So let me make an ancient point: Sometimes the things we hold in reverence are those we can only see through a glass darkly. It turns out that it wasn’t just the dust and distance of 13 years that leaves my recollections of Chinese Girls hazy. Part of what I loved back then was the haze, was a beauty that was irretrievable. Consider this the perfect soundtrack for fuzzy memories. Play it loud.