October 2011

Arts & Letters

Out of the bay

By Robert Forster
The boys in Girls: Christopher Owens and Chet 'JR' White.
Girls’s ‘Father, Son, Holy Ghost’

Girls are a two-piece band out of San Francisco who write and sing songs about loneliness, heartbreak, the fuzzy disconnect around rock’n’roll and romance, and girls. Father, Son, Holy Ghost follows the EP Broken Dreams Club (2010) and the album Album (2009) as the third instalment in a rush of releases that have quickly pushed the band from lo-fi home recording to the big studios – and to ‘second album’ expectations. Both Christopher Owens (singer–songwriter) and Chet ‘JR’ White (bass player and producer) had been floating around the Bay Area underground scene for some time; their meeting and recognition of complementary talents was the making of the band.

Girls have songs. On Album there were plenty of in-favour indie-rock production touches, but what really struck were the sophistication and beauty of the melodies. Owens arrived carrying many of the essentials needed for singer–songwriter impact: knowledge of song craft, a distinctive voice and a unique lyrical slant, which has allowed him to flower into an underground rock star. The primitive production and sound quality of Album, while perhaps filtering out some fans in need of a more conventional and pretty approach, could not obscure the majesty of his songs.

As with other noisy pop groups, such as the Jesus and Mary Chain or My Bloody Valentine, the rough-and-tumble of these first recordings had a shrouded pop aesthetic at its heart. One song, ‘Laura’, was so strong and catchy that it could have been a hit at various points of rock history: for the Everly Brothers, Tom Petty, or any early ’70s AM radio star. The chorus was not difficult: “Oh Laura, baby, I’m right here, and I don’t want to fight anymore / I really want to be your friend forever, friends forever.” There were other songs as sweet, covering ground from early ’60s Spector-ish pop to scuzzy indie rock, and Owens could do the heavy stuff too. ‘Hellhole Ratrace’ was the strategically placed 6 minute–plus opus that completed side one (many modern bands, besides releasing on vinyl, also prefer sequencing to it as well) on which Owens successfully pushed his love for melody into darker places.

It was a talent Owens took even further in ‘Alright’ and ‘Carolina’, two of the six spectacular tracks making up Broken Dreams Club. In the year between recordings there had been changes. The band was now in a bigger studio, and with clarity and volume came an emphasis on the inherent classicism of the songwriting, as well as the confidence to take the straggling roots of some of the looser numbers of Album and transform them into some truly dazzling adventurous rock. ‘Alright’ had a 2 minute intro shimmer that didn’t bore; ‘Carolina’ went through four sections over seven compelling minutes. Two extra tracks would have yielded a killer LP.

With Father, Son, Holy Ghost following just a year later, the band must have thought itself on a roll. Yet an early indicator that the upward trend has come to a halt can be found in the new record’s sound. Three Girls records, three different recording locations, three different engineers and producers raises the question: Why forsake the punch and accessibility of Broken Dreams Club for this muddier, weaker sound? It’s the first of a number of baffling decisions. Another is the return to the scattered, lo-fi approach of the first album after the unified sound and vision of the EP. Eleven varied fonts are used by Owens (who does the band’s artwork) for the track listing on the back of the record, a tip-off that this album is more concerned with exploring musical styles than with presenting a cohesive and compact set of songs.

Father, Son, Holy Ghost begins strongly enough, even if the dynamics of the pop openers, ‘Honey Bunny’ and ‘Alex’, aren’t as sharp as on earlier records. There is also a noticeable lowering of the vocals in the mix, which will sap melodic strength from some songs; it’s an album you have to lean in to hear and forgive indulgence to appreciate. With ‘Die’, big rock guitar – an unexpected feature of the album – comes in, bringing a hardcore punk edge to proceedings in line with some metal-band history shared by Owens and White. The riffing is brutal, almost a test for those wanting to go the distance. ‘Die’ also goes into an extended coda – a trick first deployed on some of the EP tracks, where songs re-start midway and then mutate. Owens’ intuitive way with melody allows some interesting bending of song structure, but it is only on ‘Vomit’ that the parts knit and the wailing lead guitar solo which bursts in, almost in parody of a rock moment, works and drives the song to a satisfying conclusion. Other songs are disjointed and too prolonged and the payoff can be paltry, such as in the closing line of ‘Forgiveness’, where Owens, at the dying end of 7.5 minutes, proffers: “I can see so much clearer / When I just close my eyes.”

Following on from the questionable sincerity of guitar breaks that recall Brian May or Slash, and a too-ready genuflection to classic rock in general, are the record’s final two cuts, ‘Love Like a River’ and ‘Jamie Marie’. The former floats on too-predictable ’50s soul/gospel chord changes, the latter has a hushed vocal and guitar reminiscent of a late Velvet Underground ballad – especially one sung by that group’s second singer to Lou Reed, Doug Yule, whose innocent, boyish voice Owens’ resembles. ‘Jamie Marie’ shows what a pale shadow Father, Son, Holy Ghost is of its predecessors; girls’ names song titles are an Owens speciality – or fetish – but a weak melody and a sense of having heard these lamentations of love lost one time too many dampens the impact. And when the band finally crashes in with an organ solo …

What went wrong? Girls operate on an interesting two-person dynamic, with White taking care of the bones of the band through his excellent bass playing and production, while Owens flies with the ideas and the laying out of his obsessions, of which there are a few. Also integral to the band and spilling into all aspects of its work, much the same as Morrissey did with The Smiths or Brett Anderson with early Suede, is Owens’ persona – one built on a childhood (until his teenage escape) with the post-hippy, apocalypse-warning Children of God cult. This time, with its estrangement from ‘straight’ society and lock-out from normal teenage musical and cultural influences, would have formed some of the Owens world view. Factor in further years spent roaming the rougher parts of American society and you have him at the point of writing the first tremulous, aching, out-of-time songs for Album. The band was born on a knife edge, with compulsiveness and a sense of extremity that rock’n’roll adores, but with these qualities comes the capacity for unpredictability and misstep.

Father, Son, Holy Ghost is just too messy, too wilful in trying to tie some of Owens’ odder songs with late ’60s to early ’70s rock. One record back they got it with Broken Dreams Club. Girls are a band mercurial and talented enough to make a stunning album one record into the future.

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

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