Graded on a Curve: Skinny Girl Diet, Ethical Debating Society, split
7-inch EP

UK bands Skinny Girl Diet and Ethical Debating Society might not currently hold widespread name recognition, but on the strength of their shared 7-inch EP (and if they can both manage to avoid that bugaboo of fledgling bands, the early breakup) that just might change. Skinny Girl Diet spit forth a scorching yet catchy distillation of punk anger and Ethical Debating Society combine the stylistics of post-punk and indie rock into a very choice listen. And happily, it seems like both groups have avoided studying their predecessors for tips in how to sound. Any ears looking for top-notch contempo din of a punk-descended nature should investigate this terrific 4-song split without delay.

While the concept of the split release, either as a single, EP or full-length album, has a long history, it really came into prominence through the ‘80s rock underground and the copious indie rock motions of the decade that followed. Often these joint efforts were simply attempts to team up and save costs, the concerned parties being individually lacking in the spending cash necessary for the proper presentation and production of their musical essence.

If the fallout from the worldwide punk uprising found an increase of folks engaging in the admirable ethos of Do It Yourself, there was obviously still much to be gained from pragmatic ground-level cooperation. Split releases reliably featured a spirit of collaboration that frequently combined with varying degrees of a documentary sensibility.

It was to be expected that the content found on these records would hold some level of stylistic or thematic congruence. So the skankin’ sounds of a sharply-dressed young ska-revival group would be highly unlikely to inhabit the opposing grooves of the same slab of vinyl that included the far more antagonistic strains of some forebodingly anti-social industrial unit.

Instead, split releases could be counted on to explicate the progressions of a specific genre, dishing out material distinct enough that the whole endeavor not only benefited the musicians involved but also detailed the general health of the outfit’s shared formal orientation. So a few spins of an inspired split could not only communicate that all was well in Garage-land, to choose just one from a bounty of relevant genres, but also offer up two fresh purveyors of the style.

Naturally, circumstances of geography could often play a part in the scheme of things, and a well done split from a pair of names that just happened to dwell in the same zip code often served the same purpose as a regionally-based compilation LP. And due to their more exclusive nature, there was far less potential for those attributes of documentation to unhappily overtake the all-important standards of quality, especially if the cohabited wax was a single or EP. Oh, sweet brevity.

The CD-era might’ve put a damper on the split’s regularity of occurrence, but it surely didn’t kill the impulse. Recently there has been a real increase in these releases, with a curious amount coming on cassette, a format that’s not particularly loved by this writer.

But if a pain in the ass to deal with, tapes are still a very inexpensive way to produce a salable product. Spying a stack of homemade split cassettes on the merch table of a couple jointly-touring bands can be more than just an endearing little endeavor, it can also help to provide gas and diner money for the groups en route to their next destination.

The catalyst for the above rumination comes in the form of a brand spanking new split 7-inch from the London-based outfits Skinny Girl Diet and Ethical Debating Society. Said record has been pressed up by the first-rate Athens, GA label Happy Happy Birthday To Me (or HHBTM for short). Both groups display a firm hold on punkish élan and non-generic delivery, and their similarities are well-balanced with distinctiveness. The result is an outstanding record that is hopefully a harbinger of fine work to come from both of the units involved.

Skinny Girl Diet is a trio consisting of Delilah on guitar, Ursula on drums, and Amelia on bass (all three are credited with vocals). If their shared gender combines with the blunt commentary of the group’s moniker (the name swiped from a diet plan that’s unfortunate reality is a downright foul thing to consider) to suggest certain affinities with a disruptive and righteous uprising in female empowerment that exploded around two decades back, the racket Skinny Girl Diet conjure up lacks any hints of retro-minded homage.

Indeed, a huge part of what makes the trio’s two songs such a supreme kick is just how urgent and unconcerned with precedent they sound. This is not to insinuate that Skinny Girl Diet isn’t connected to the past. It’s just not fussed over. Due to their casual relationship to extant models, my rather hasty initial point of comparison turned out to be rather shortsighted. Specifically, I made a kneejerk association to the work of the Olympia/DC trio Bratmobile.

It didn’t take me long to recognize the lack of depth in this attempted categorization. While Skinny Girl Diet does give off a mild surface resemblance to that excellent (and long defunct) bicoastal group, one big point of departure is the current trio’s deeper cohesiveness as a unit. In just shy of seven minutes, Skinny Girl Diet’s side of this split conveys an effectively heavy experience (and while Bratmobile were many things, heavy wasn’t really one of ‘em), and does so in just the right dosage.

Delilah’s needling guitar passage at the start of “DMT” makes the outfit’s clamorous intent immediately clear. While the song does possess some nice hooks underneath the blare, its melodiousness isn’t focused on pop finesse but instead on becoming a memorable steamroller, loaded with punch and holding much velocity.

A further distinctive facet of “DMT” comes through the drop-outs in the instrumental attack, a mildly post-punk element that’s enhanced by an intensity that at times comes close to hardcore-era heft. And there’s real diversity in their stew. I’d even speculate that Skinny Girl Diet’s sound is deep enough to appeal not just to fans of early Rough Trade and Riot , but also Killed by Death-styled punk and ‘80s post-hardcore.

Their second tune “Homesick” plays a big part in the above hypothesis. It opens with the guitar snazzily riffing upon a wickedly grouchy tone and possesses some superb non-telegraphed tempo-shifts along the way. The vocals are well-mixed, their base of direct and sturdy harmonizing getting spiked with potent screams that accentuate Skinny Girl Diet’s non-sunny outlook.

The drumming of Ursula deserves a special citation. She flaunts a disciplined cymbals-heavy attack that really assists the band in avoiding the burden of any prior band’s sound, though I also don’t get the vibe that Skinny Girl Diet are trying all that hard to be innovative. It seems they just want to make some noise that gets stuck in the brain, and if so, through these two songs they’ve surely succeeded.

And Ethical Debating Society isn’t lagging behind one bit in making a very strong first impression. On one hand, this mixed-gender group, consisting of Tegan Christmas and Kris Martin on guitars/vocals and Rob Macabre on drums “and no bass,” grabs some of that early Rough Trade gusto and marries it to a sharp sense of indie rock dynamics.

“Child’s Play,” the first of their two first-rate cuts, reveals a dual vocal heft that reminded this listener just a wee bit of Ari Up and Ana da Silva. In both cases the connection is so fragile that even typing it onto the page feels more than a little bit dubious, mainly because their instrumental thrust owes nothing to either The Slits or The Raincoats.

For the guitars of Ethical Debating Society, mostly chunky yet also capable during “Child’s Play” of a tidy beauty weave, combine with drumming that’s crisp and sprightly in its anchoring role, which makes a lot sense given the lack of another rhythm instrument in the scenario (Macabre utilizes the toms to splendid effect). Like a lot of non-glamorous early-‘90s indie stuff, it’s far too advanced to be called punk, and yet it’s surely invested in a comparable spirit.

But please don’t make the jump to Riot Grrl. No, it makes much more sense to connect the boy-girl vocals of the fabulously knotty “Creosote Ideas” to a neglected band like Raleigh, NC’s Angels of Epistemology (actually an ‘80s band whose stuff didn’t see release until the following decade through the auspices of the Merge label), though even that’s a comparison of real limited mileage.

What Ethical Debating Society has done is simply plundered the rich language of rock music and found a powerful voice and some room to move in the current landscape. Not a singular achievement, but one that definitely takes up a lot of space in any well-rounded record collection. And they match up very well with Skinny Girl Diet. Again, neither group attempts to bowl anybody over with blatant gestures of originality, but in the process they do collectively impress as not being interested in piggy-backing onto anyone else’s sound for their success.

The energy of both bands is infectious and the dedication to their music is quickly palpable. This combined effort is a grower in the best sense, kicking up a hell of lot of dust and positioning both as acts to watch. And it goes about its business in the lean, mean time-honored tradition of the split 7-inch, but I’d never be so gauche as to say it does it “the old-fashioned way.”

For not only are Skinny Girl Diet and Ethical Debating Society both firmly about the current moment, but in waxing up this killer 7″, the Happy Happy Birthday To Me label adds another entry to their already impressive roster and provides further evidence of their growing rep as one of the most thoughtfully conceived small labels around.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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