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Girl Ray’s Nostalgia Trip

The latest album from the London trio is a throwback to the glory days of disco

David Meir Grossman
August 10, 2023

During disco’s heyday, as Michaelangelo Matos points out in his short, sharp We Won’t Settle for Less: Chic at the End of Disco, the music was everywhere, especially the past. As nostalgia took hold in the Happy Days-era of the 1970s, music was similarly looking back. From our modern vantage point, disco might seem like a sharp break from the popular music that came before it, but bands like Chic were making a clear connection between themselves and the Roaring ’20s with songs like “Le Freak” (“stomping at the Savoy”) and “Good Times,” which referenced Al Jolson songs and felt like a Depression-era “Happy Days Are Here Again”-type song.

Given the current state of the world, it’s not surprising that references to disco and its heyday are becoming increasingly common. The biggest of these, of course, is Beyonce’s Renaissance, a project of overwhelming power with the gravitational pull of a medium-size planet. But there are also fascinating smaller projects that draw from the guitar-based disco of Chic, like Girl Ray’s new album Prestige.

Girl Ray are three British women—Poppy Hankin, Iris McConnell, and Sophie Moss—who have been making tightly built indie-pop since 2016, music that’s too formed and propulsive to be described with a  label like “twee.” Prestige, their third album, marks their biggest sonic growth since they’ve started, filled with undeniable bops.

“Tell Me,” which comes late on the album, best exemplifies their disco project. Shimmery keyboards, tight basslines, Hankin’s voice making lyrics like “Baby we were hot like a cigar / But here I am crying in the back of my car” seem like the most important thing in the world. “Reading your mind is like foreign TV,” she says as the beat makes for a simply perfect groove.

Prestige started off a little like disco did, as a nostalgia trip. Hankin was watching the TV show Pose, which moves through the ’80s and ’90s from the perspective of New York City’s ball culture, trans sex workers, yuppies doing coke in Trump Tower, and so on. Hankin says in an interview that “the soundtrack, and the aesthetic, aside from it being a great TV show, just drew my attention more to that scene, and let me delve more into the roots of disco.”

That led to a little world-building work, with Girl Ray developing the idea for an ’80s discotheque called Prestige where they’re the house band. The album isn’t a seamless piece like Renaissance, where the track listing takes listeners through a very specific voyage. Prestige offers a fun dance song, winds that one down, and then starts up another one. Not all the songs distinguish themselves from each other, which would seem to be an important part of being a club’s house band.

But carefully examining this concept is missing the forest for the trees. Some of the songs sound similar, yes, but they all sound good. And the stronger tracks, like “Everybody’s Saying That” and “Begging You Now,” offer electronic bleeps, strings, guitar solos, and a distinct sense of self. Tying all the songs together is Hankin’s singing, and the way she’s able to dispassionately declare intense emotion. Her voice sings of love and heartbreak while melding seamlessly with the instruments around her. 

Girl Ray’s Prestige is perfect background music, the type of music you put on for working and gets so good that you can’t help but stop for a minute here and there to listen more intensely. As disco itself teaches, repetition can be a strength. Listen long enough, lose yourself in the moment, and find yourself coming back for more.

David Meir Grossman is a writer living in Brooklyn. His Twitter feed is @davidgross_man.