“All right, this song’s about my therapist — it’s called ‘Ruby’!” Eva Grace Hendricks announced, exuberantly, from the stage of the Mercury Lounge a couple of weeks ago. And with a mighty kick of her Doc Marten, she and her band, Charly Bliss, launched into a gritty-sweet ode to falling apart and shelling out the copay to be glued back together — one of the best songs on the Brooklyn band’s uniformly excellent debut album, Guppy, out Friday. “Ditch me, gone to see Ruby, keep me afloat on call,” Hendricks sang in her grungy, helium-sucker voice, while out of the bridge sprang the kind of so-cheesy-it’s-actually-glorious guitar solo that reminds you it has been way too long since you listened to the Blue Album. While riffing, Hendricks and lead guitarist Spencer Fox leaned into each others’ backs and struck one of those exaggerated rock poses that a Van Halen cover band might do; bassist Dan Shure then joined the human pile-up and almost knocked them over. These guys were having fun, and the energy was contagious: The packed room pogoed ecstatically, including, I was pleased to note, two men who’d fatefully wandered in off the street, having never heard of Charly Bliss nor “seen live music in New York City.” “What does the band sound like?” one of them asked me right before they went on. By the end of “Ruby,” I had found the words to answer this question and had texted them to several friends in all caps, “CHARLY BLISS SOUND LIKE IF A COOL GRRRL HAVING A TEMPER TANTRUM FRONTED NIRVANA AND LET’S BE HONEST THAT’S WHAT KURT WOULD HAVE WANTED ANYWAY.”
So let it be known: Charly Bliss are a great live band. That’s not always enough, though, and not every band can capture the energy of its show on a record — the fact that they’ve done it the first time around on Guppy makes it extra special. There’s no filler here, just 10 ramshackle pop songs — rough around the edges but so well constructed that they stick in your brain like fresh bubblegum. Hendricks, 24, writes the lyrics, and she’s described her approach as trying to convey “this overgrown teenybopper feeling.” The effect is wonderfully unsettling. Her words create an atmosphere of macabre and unruly girliness — like a Lisa Frank tableau in which one of the unicorns is smoking a joint and does not realize he is bleeding. “I laughed when your dog died, it is cruel, but it’s true,” she sings with mock innocence on a track called “DQ.” “Does he love me the most now that his dog is toast? Ooo-oooh!” Hendricks has described her band’s vibe, correctly, as “generally positive people saying super dark, fucked-up things.”
The members of Charly Bliss have known each other for a long time, and it shows. Hendricks’s brother Sam is the drummer, and Shure is their childhood friend; Shure introduced the siblings to Spencer Fox when they all went to see the indie band Tokyo Police Club about a decade ago. You can tell from both their stage show and every one of their music videos that the people in this band are actually friends, with shared reference points and senses of humor. This is an undervalued quality in a band.
When they released their first EP, Soft Serve, back in 2014, Charly Bliss made a video for each of its three songs, and the clips are odes to doing more with less — they’re obviously super low-budget, but they capture the band’s personality so well that their homemade quality becomes part of their charm. My favorite is “Urge to Purge,” which finds the band performing in swimsuits and inflatable inner tubes, the house band at a fever-dreamed Under the Sea–themed prom:
Almost three years have passed since Soft Serve, which in young-upstart-punk-band time is enough for fans to have wondered if that debut full-length was ever coming at all. There was a reason for the delay: They’d recorded a whole first version of their album and then scrapped it because they weren’t completely satisfied. I’m glad they took the time. Guppy is a huge leap forward from Soft Serve, and a statement from a band that’s more confident and serious than they used to be, though they have retained their signature playfulness and sense of humor. (See: the “Ruby” video, which features the band playing on a fictitious Between Two Ferns–grade public-access TV show. Hendricks plays the host, “Tiff Pappleby.”)
Hendricks’s voice is a wild, one-of-a-kind instrument, and the great difference you can hear from Soft Serve to Guppy is the way she’s come to wield it with force and control. It’s a candy-coated falsetto with a sneering, sarcastic sheen. “You say that I make you feel like a man,” she sings at the end of opening track “Percolator,” with enough of an expressive sonic eye-roll to make the line absolutely withering. She’s got one of those voices that toys with how close sweet is to sour, and how femininity exaggerated and embodied to an extreme is its own kind of gruesomeness — which is to say, punk as fuck.
Something about the tone of Fox’s guitar combined with the grumbly low-end of the rhythm section recalls a very specific moment of mid-to-late-’90s alternative rock, and of a small collection of power-pop bands that should have been way more famous than they got to be: Superdrag, the Rentals and even, to some extent, Veruca Salt. (Fittingly, Charly Bliss got to open for them in 2015 on their reunion tour.) Everything collides in harmony and there is no dead weight in this band: Songs like “Gatorade” and the distortion-drenched slow-dance closer “Julia” swell with a cresting energy coming from all four corners of the stage.
But Charly Bliss are not all fun and games; you do not get to dedicate a song to your therapist without expressing some kind of vulnerability. One of my favorite moments on Guppy is the chorus of “Glitter,” a pretty but melancholy song on which Hendricks asks a boyfriend, “Am I the best, or just the first person to say yes?” It’s a simple but terrifying question that anyone in a relationship has probably wondered at one point or another; Hendricks’s bandmates draw out its pathos with some harmonized “oohs” and “ahhhs.” Just because it’s sweet doesn’t mean it can’t sting. Guppy is like this, at its best: a big block of sugar whittled down into an ice pick, aimed straight at the heart.