September 28, 2011

Test Spins: Girls, Father, Son, Holy Ghost

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Christopher Owens has the kind of disturbed backstory that’s perfect for songwriting. A childhood in the polyamorous (and sometimes pedophilic) Children of God cult. A nomadic teenager; a global vagabond eating out of garbage cans (by choice). A kindred spirit bromance with 64-year-old Texas oil billionaire, Stanley Marsh III. A brief stint in the straight-laced corporate world, complete with starched collars and evenings of nondescript jazz. An ongoing dalliance with heroin, which Chris believes is “the warmest hug you’ve ever received.” And after all this pivotal personal development, all this art-provoking tragedy, what does Owens—vocalist of San Francisco’s indie-rock duo, Girls—write about in his second full-length studio album?

His mom—of course. At least, that’s who Owens refers to in “Honey Bunny,” the opening track on Girls’ sophomore effort, Father, Son, Holy Ghost. The rest of the songs speak of normality and its evasive nature.

While Owens no longer unabashedly pilfers his past for his lyrical content, his heartbreaking history does rear its head in Father, Son, Holy Ghost through Owens’ always soulful voice—decades of genuine despair encapsulated in his perfectly tender timbre. But Owens’ vocals, somehow a curiously androgynous mix of both raw and delicate, aren’t the only reason why Father is topping everyone’s list of superlatives this year. Truth be told, Girls delivered. After almost too much hubbub surrounding Girls with the release of their debut album, Album (2009), and, subsequently, a shockingly non-disappointing Broken Dreams Club (2010) EP, Girls seemed well on their way towards a karma-induced failure, a common symptom of Overhyped-but-Underdeveloped-itis in the music industry. Because critics generally anticipate failure on sophomore albums, Girls could only narrowly avoid a serious crash and burn if they produced something that was either a novelty—without over-reaching their original sound and alienating their fan base—or an instant classic.

Fortunately for Girls, Father, Son, Holy Ghost has achieved both. Bypassing the sophomore slump for sophomore success, Girls have improved on their style, cultivating a sound that, while eerily familiar in its obvious nods to past genres, is still fresh. But maybe Chris Owens is too fucked up, too unconventional to comfortably subscribe to any one genre—too prone to hopscotching between surf pop, acoustic folk, psychedelia, gospel, glam rock, pop rock, indie rock, and post-punk revivalism to sucessfully create his retro-modernist sound.

Still, while some may contest the disconnect between the lo-fi arrangements, there is always a certain charm to be found in all their unedited messiness. The introduction of an organ and gospel choir in “Vomit” reinvents 70s heartbreak rock in an experimental epic, reminiscent of Spiritualized’s cover of Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky.” Similarly, the rockabilly surfer feel in the would-be Beach Boys/Elvis Costello mash-up that is “Honey Bunny” sounds exactly like the type of sunny pop melody to cruise down the 101 to. And when frontman Owen coos, “They don’t like my boney body/ They don’t like my dirty hair/ Or the stuff that I say/ Or the stuff that I’m on,” there is a level of self-awareness in his delivery, a damaged soul that can still make heartbreak catchy. Despite Father, Son Holy Ghost’s surf pop opener, the remaining tracks go for a heavier sound, as in “Die” where long outros and stadium guitar riffs are prominently featured. Usually, this heaviness works for Girls, but there lies an exception in the album’s emotionally exhausting (and even aurally exhausting) eight-minute dirge, “Forgiveness.” However, the poignant guitar solo towards the song’s end releases some of  melancholic tension, and there is also refuge to be found in Owens’ refreshingly straightforward lyrics: “No one’s going to find any answers/ If you’re looking in the dark/ And looking for a reason to give up.”

Fortunately, lighter ballads can be found in “Just a Song” where a gorgeously simple string guitar feature sets the tone for similarly simple lyrics, slipping into the warm intimacy of early Iron & Wine. “Magic” is another example, a lively reprieve with a playful time scheme and a tambourine keeping the beat. It’s songs like these that give Father, Son, Holy Ghost the ability to warm our lonely heart—right before the next ballad, bleeding feeling, breaks it yet again.

Ultimately, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost distinguishes itself as an exemplary work, capturing the youth and romance in being fatally fucked up. As an expert in all things damaged and broken-hearted, Chris Owens leads Girls in this album of quality artistry.

Original Author: Alice Wang