There is something timeless and vital in the two full-length records that San Francisco's Girls have released in the last three years. In an era of indie music dominated by irony (see the nostalgic nonchalance of chillwave) and willful obscurity (see Radiohead's latest album, King of Limbs), it seems many musicians have stopped writing perfect pop songs. Thankfully, there has been a renaissance of old-fashioned songwriting in the music of Girls, whose lo-fi debut, Album, was released in 2009 to critical acclaim. They now follow with the more expansive and polished Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
Singer-songwriter Christopher Owens' obsession with tunecraft sounds fresh, despite its long-gone influences. The new album sounds like a songbook of greats from 40 years ago, including early Fleetwood Mac, the Beach Boys, and Pink Floyd, with the fragility of Buddy Holly. Owens' heart is always on his sleeve, but he somehow avoids sappy sentimentality.
Some of the band's most delicate moments are hidden below excess instrumentation. Hammond organs, gospel choirs, and several guitar solos show up, as on classic rock albums of the '70s. This seems deliberate — every sound on the album was meticulously channeled through analog and vintage equipment, giving Holy Ghost a warmth that could never be created digitally. The Rickenbacker rattle and pedal steel slides on "My Ma" could have been recorded in Sun Studios in 1953; the result, however, is not derivative, but five minutes of music with more heart and soul than most of this year's releases.
The band avoided the large L.A. studios, instead recording its sophomore release in a basement in San Francisco. "I don't really want to tell anyone where we recorded it," producer/bassist Chet "JR" White says. "It's basically a guy in a weird concrete room in downtown San Francisco with endless amounts of vintage recording gear. I met a man in the Make-Out Room who introduced me to him. He's like a guy who owns an amazing antiques store and when you ask him how much things cost he doesn't want to sell them to you. It's a private collection of vintage musical recording equipment, more than a commercial studio."
The band created a huge, lush sound in the unusual recording environment. The lead single and highlight of the album, "Vomit," may be the greatest use of gospel singing over a rock 'n' roll coda since Pink Floyd's "The Great Gig in the Sky," and revisits the long, slow build of the band's 2009 single "Hellhole Ratrace." The second single and album opener, "Honey Bunny," is all-out surf rock. During the slow middle eight, Owens sings about his mother, whose involvement in the Children of God cult apparently led to prostitution and a refusal to take modern medicine, and the death of Christopher's brother. Few artists have sung so honestly about a maternal relationship since Lennon: "That woman loved me; I need a woman who loves me, me me me me me!"
While performing this song recently on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Owens poked his bony finger into his chest every time he spat the word "Me!" Any other singer in any other band displaying this level of self-obsession would be disregarded as a histrionic teen, but Owens draws the listener into his fragile, lonely world. Owens' often-repeated backstory — growing up in cult and being taken in by the Texas artist Stanley Marsh 3 — doesn't make his self-pity so intriguing, it's more his old-fashioned songcraft. It often feels like Owens is daring you to throw stones at him. He is the first to admit that his voice is not strong, and to layer it over a roaring gospel choir should highlight its weakness — but in this juxtaposition, Owens' voice finds its place.
Owens and JR have always exhibited a huge amount of San Francisco pride. The videos from Album featured the band in the city, usually accompanied by numerous girls rolling around Dolores Park and hanging loose at house parties in the Mission. Owens recently claimed that this gang of photographers and artists has since split up, and maybe that explains why the video for "Vomit" portrays a much darker and lonelier side of the city, with Owens riding through the Tenderloin at night in a shiny red Mustang, before picking up JR somewhere in Chinatown.
Father, Son, and Holy Ghost is an ambitiously constructed album, with musicianship, recording techniques, and arrangements dearly missed in the current musical climate. Lyrically, it is a further installment of Christopher Owens' beautifully written diary, laid bare for the listener. As he sings on the gorgeous closer, "Jamie Marie," "All of my little secrets aren't so secret anymore."