Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Girls- Father, Son, Holy Ghost

First, Girls are a San Francisco-based band made up of Christopher Owens and Chet 'JR' White who are, in fact, boys. Second, they like old music and drugs. A lot. Third, their debut Album was among my favorite albums of 2009, and the followup EP Broken Dreams Club was among my favorite albums of 2010 (though Robin did not like it at all). Most importantly, if you are unfamiliar with the backstory of singer and primary songwriter Christopher Owens (who looks exactly like a strung out, tattooed Macaulay Culkin, by the way), get thee to this interview. It is pretty important to understand how growing up in the Children of God cult and his subsequent life have shaped his music.

Here we go:

01. Honey Bunny
The song starts with a fast-paced drum fill and kicks the album off with a very retro feel. Most of the reviews seem to mention this song as being extremely egomaniacal. I interpret the lyrics a bit differently. Christopher Owens talks about wanting a girl who will "love [him] for all the reasons everyone hates [him]" and opens up later in the song by talking about how his mother would "hold [him] closely and tell [him] 'everything will be alright'" before saying that he needs a woman who loves him in the way his mother did. To me, this song is a sweet song about a deeply damaged man who is realizing that all his "messing with so many girls who could give a damn about who [he is]" is leading him nowhere and that he needs a woman who will love him for who he is. 4 stars

02. Alex
In this song, Mr. Owens is writing about a girl named Alex with whom he is infatuated. He writes "You've got a lovely smile; I could spend a while with that smile" only to later discover that "Alex has a boyfriend; oh well, I'm in hell." I can completely relate to this experience. Later he dismisses the situation "could we fall in love? Well who cares about love?" before the ending refrain "Anywhere, anyway, only you." 4 stars

03. Die
This is perhaps the hardest that Girls have rocked. The song begins with a minute and a half of instrumentals, featuring a surprisingly catchy guitar riff and legitimately rocking drums. There is even a pretty awesome distorted guitar solo. Then the simple lyrics kick in, the gist of which is that nothing is okay, and we're all gonna die. Unfortunately, the nice instrumentals are overshadowed for me by how weak the lyrics are, leaving this ultimately just okay. It does help with the transition into the next track though. 2.5 stars

04. Saying I Love You
This song sounds like perhaps a lost B-side by The Zombies or The Turtles. The chorus asks a very poignant question: how can he tell someone that he loves, needs, or wants them "now that you've said everything I said to you, to somebody new?" Mr. Owens' voice has just the right amount of feeling and rawness to avoid making lyrics like "You threw my heart away, you made me blue" sound cliche and insincere. The guitars and drums combine with his voice to make this sound timeless and current at the same time. 5 stars

05. My Ma
This song adds a little variety to what have been fairly straightforward pop songs with an organ, and once again, Christopher Owens' unpolished yet plaintive voice. When he sings "I'm looking for meaning in my life, and you my Ma" you can't help but believe him. This song marks the second time in five songs that he explicitly mentions his mother and his relationship with her. In the interview I mentioned above, he elaborates quite a bit on his relationship with his mother, who raised him in a cult, and that relationship seems to have influenced this record quite a bit. The lyric "It's so hard to feel so alone and so far, so far from home, and you my Ma" is rendered quite a bit more meaningful in light of his background. 5 stars

06. Vomit
This is yet another song about Mr. Owens' need and search for love. He spends the first half of the song detailing how on "nights I spend alone, I spend 'em runnin' 'round lookin' for you, baby, lookin' for love" which makes his later repeated plea throughout the second half of the song of "come in to my heart" ring true. The gospel choir-type backing vocals are something I normally wouldn't like at all, but in this case, they add to the cathartic nature of his refrain and provide an interesting contrast to the distorted guitars. Girls have evolved from their straight ahead surf rock sound of Album; this song in particular makes great use of soft/loud dynamics. 5 stars

07. Just A Song
If the last song was all about a search for love, this song is depicts the disappointment and dejection of not finding it. The lyrics for several of the songs so far have been quite simple and repetitive, and this is no exception. Here, the refrain of "seems like nobody's happy now" sets up the ending refrain "love, love, love, love, it's just a song." Overall, not a standout track, but it fits into the album well. 3 stars

08. Magic
It seems that his dejection and belief that "love is just a song" is gone. In fact, "just a look was all it took, suddenly I'm on the hook". This is another example of a simple pop song that sounds like it was recorded in the sixties. It is similar in theme to Alex, but does it in a far more trite way. This feels like it should have been left on the cutting room floor. 2 stars

09. Forgiveness
Once again, the interview at the interview at the top can help explain this song. Although he had a pretty horrible childhood, Christopher Owens at the very least doesn't seem to have any resentment towards his mother. This song lacks the exhuberence of Magic, but shows genuine hope. When he sings that "nothing's gonna get any better if you don't have a little hope" and that "you'll have to forgive me brother, and you'll have to forgive me sister, and I'll have to forgive you, if we're ever gonna move on," it comes across as profound, rather than meaningless. This song is much like Vomit, in that it has the same potent combination of Mr. Owens' voice, distorted guitars, and harmonies on the choruses to bring more depth to the simple and sincere lyrics.  It also serves as the centerpiece of the album, and touches the themes of love, loss, hope, and his family. 5 stars

10. Love Like A River
This is another simple sixties-sounding pop song. It has a similar sound to other songs on the record, but while the rawness of his voice saves Saying I Love You from seeming trite, it is a little too lifeless here, and the song falls flat. 2 stars

11. Jamie Marie
Mr. Owens' voice carries this song more than any of the other songs on the album. It is backed by quieter guitars than the other songs on the album, and again makes simple lyrics seem quite sincere. He manages to sound resigned, nostalgic, and tired all at once when he sings "Maybe it's all right. I mean, I went and found the modern world. But I miss the way life was, when you were my girl". After this, the drums and organ finally kick in, and end the album on a restrained, yet lively note. 4 stars

The Final Word
Overall, this is a great album.  Christopher Owens writes about quite a few themes in these 11 songs.  There are songs about girls, obviously, but there are deeper songs that explore infatuation, Mr. Owens' relationship with his mother, his need for love, the loss of love, depression, and forgiveness. There is also a subtle sense of spirituality, exemplified by the gospel-choir type harmonies and the title of the album, along with the song Love Like A River.  Although there are a few songs that don't live up to the rest of the album, it builds on the surf-rock of Album and the more fleshed-out sound of Broken Dreams Club to make a new sound that sounds new, yet familiar at the same time.  Also, I spent the whole review talking about Christopher Owens, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention Chet 'JR' White's contributions as well.  Mr. White, along with Doeg Boehm, was responsible for much of the production on the album, which was stripped down and extremely effective.
Standout Tracks: Saying I Love You, Vomit, My Ma

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