PLAYING CHICAGO: Half Gringa Meditates on Uncertainty on Force to Reckon LP

Playing Chicago
Photo Credit: Rachel Winslow

It feels appropriate for an album loud with nostalgia to kick off with a track about memory called “1990.” The opening licks of Half Gringa’s sophomore release, Force to Reckon, took me back to the early 2010s, when I lived in the South and would careen around bends along the Appalachian Mountains with Defiance, Ohio, Mirah, and Rilo Kiley spilling out my windows. If I could distill that sound into a time capsule — along with the freedom of those drives or the way my heart felt things so much more intensely then because many experiences were still new — it would be this record.

Singer Izzy Olive croons in that intimate, confessional style that came to maturity in the aughts for alt rock women — but without the vocal flourishes or gushing reverb more apparent in newer artists, like Angel Olsen. Force to Reckon is punctuated with a mix of folksy violin and pop riffs that have declined this last decade. In some ways, it sounds suspended in time.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. COVID-19 has many people looking to past sources of comfort, with music acting as a particular sort of time machine. This album offers familiarity to a moment where everything from the future of live music to what’s happening to Portland protestors is uncertain. And it does it vibrantly, masterfully. Half Gringa doesn’t reinvent the wheel — but makes sure it’s polished and strong. Force to Reckon is unflinching in what it does.

The standout track is the second song, “Binary Star.” It’s a rich journey of yearning and rejection that comes in waves, but many lines take on their own meaning. When Olive repeats with a pained longing, “Nothing feels like almost touching,” I recall the ache of having not hugged a friend since February. Now we see each other at six-foot distances outside, if we see each other at all, and even brushing elbows with strangers on the train feels worthy of fantasy for how foreign, even forbidden, it’s become.

Olive sounds like she’s waxing about a past lover, but certain phrases transcend the specifics of the story. In another part, she says, “Everyone leaves for California, New York, Chile, Berlin.” If you’re from the Midwest, as I am, Chicago seemed mythical growing up — the BIG “big city” of the region where grit and aspiration are tested. But that also makes it a pit stop, not a final destination. In comedy, you hone your act at someplace like Second City, then take it to Los Angeles (actors and musicians, do this, too). If you’re a writer or artist, you rub elbows with poets, maybe get an MFA, then head to New York.

Olive came from a small town in southern Illinois to study poetry at University of Chicago. Adopting the moniker Half Gringa as “in tribute to her Venezuelan family and her bicultural experience growing up in the United States” (according to Bandcamp), she’s stayed in Chicago to make music. So when she follows a list of common relocations for former Chicagoans with, “I’m not going anywhere, I’m not going anywhere,” it sounds bold. Bolder than telling a lover she’ll wait for them despite all indicators she shouldn’t. Then she says, “The bar’s warm and I’m easy to converse with and denial runs its long hands/Through my fine hair with a final, fatal smile.” Knowing Chicago is just a chapter for most transplants, you hear the defiance mixed with self doubt in that line as being about here, specifically. This city is a gamble – there are opportunities elsewhere. Maybe she’s kidding herself, but she’s choosing opportunities closer to home, relishing them rather than feeling resigned.

To say “I’m not going anywhere” also evokes a willing immobility because of Coronavirus. By chance, so much of the record speaks to being stuck at home — time in isolation to reflect on our pasts, contemplate our futures, and fixate on both the personal and structural conditions that brought us where we are now. On “Transitive Property,” Olive sings, “I don’t understand this country/I don’t understand my own grief/How could you have seen what I see?/I’m in disbelief and bereaved.” I’m unsure what she’s specifically responding to, but when I hear it, I hear my own anguish about the murders of people such as Breonna Taylor or Riah Milton. Or my outrage that, in the United States, healthcare is tied to employment, so over 30 million people don’t have either right now. It’s a cathartic song for discomfort and lack of resolution. I take comfort hearing someone else is hurting and upset by our country, too.

Force to Reckon tries to make sense of so many things specific and abstract that bring us ache and confusion. Every song searches — tunes that probe childhood trauma, grieving at a distance, and other prescient themes — but never reaches a tidy conclusion. Like so much right now, the album is open ended. Unlike most, it’s beautifully so.

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