I've been everywhere with the San Francisco band Girls: Love 'em, hate 'em, find them overhyped, find the detractors overly cynical. I think they like it that way. Girls' hugely-acclaimed 2009 Album blew me away for a week. Then I found myself having trouble rekindling that need to hear it and reconnect with it again before it came time for the year-end lists. I ended up remembering it as a flash novelty that skated by on surprise rather than songs. Here's hoping their second full-length, Father, Son, Holy Ghost -- which is out today on True Panther -- will help me choose sides.
As with that first record, I expected nothing from Christopher Owens' richly-hyped band and I'm walking away with something immediately. "Honey Bunny" is almost as audacious an opener as Vampire Weekend's "Horchata." "I know you love me/ For all the reasons everyone hates me," Owens sings in the unmistakable tune of the Beach Boys' "Fun, Fun, Fun" verse -- only that's one of maybe four melodies that his chord changes juggle deftly over a country-western gallop and one downtempo bridge, all inside of 2:41. The high-fidelity blare is notable, too: Something this bright and big has likely never appeared on a Matador Records release before (and that's counting Capitol split-ups like Liz Phair's whitechocolatespaceegg), and maybe not even on an indie rock record before, unless you count Sufjan Stevens' Illinois (which is using the "rock" half of the term extremely liberally). This is like R.E.M. jumping straight from Murmur to Out of Time.
One of the problems with Girls' debut is that it slowed down too quickly and relied on old-time signifiers for punch. I don't know what to make of Father, Son, Holy Ghost so far; it's both punchier and more old-timey. "Alex" grooves excellently with plenty of melodic breakdowns and a lot of cymbal work doing the pedaling. It's almost twice the length of "Honey Bunny" and it barely feels like it's gotten started before it's over.
Whoa -- this is new. Total "Sabbra Caddabra," this one: all crunch, squeal, and shuffle. Or Wolfmother's "Woman," if you prefer. Then it becomes what can only be described as hippie-ish speed metal when the singing comes in, around 1:37: "We're all gonna die, we're all gonna die." Owens' voice, as maybe even fans already know, is the literal weak link with this band. He can barely wisp his ideas across vocally, which is why it's damn amazing how dedicated he is to compensating sonically. But then he gets to one of these godawful slow sections and I feel like maybe I'm overpraising his money. This gets genuinely awful for the Hobbit-y second half. Like, when's-the-flute-coming-in awful.
Saying I Love You
And he switches off again, the nut. California surf-sleaze lounge balladry. Maybe if "Die" didn't pelt me absurdly with Dungeons & Dragons nostalgia I'd be more open to this not-bad tune, but the lyrics are overly earnest even for him. Saving grace: the gorgeously fingerpicked breakdown that's blessedly in the same tempo.
From leisure-strum to epic hymn, this guy's too in love with the slow. This '70s crawler sounds like a Stillwater tune he's eager to pitch to Almost Famous 2. More gorgeously captured guitar, weightless organ and some of the biggest-sounding tambourines I've heard all year. Maybe his ma's a Bob Seger fan?
This year isn't going down as my favorite music year, but it's particularly shameful how few things have even shook or challenged me. The indie crowd is praising smaller and smaller granular movements, mainstream rock has offered up Foster the People as its newcomer story, and rap falls sadly into two too-thin categories: you are (Tyler/Weezy/The Throne) or you aren't (Shabazz Palaces/Curren$y). So I congratulate Christopher Owens for trying wake music up, veering wildly from one fully realized '60s-'70s homage to another, and without anything meta or lo-fi to undercut its sheer wide-eyed ambition. This is loud and large, the most commanding presence in whatever room it's in, six minutes long, and titled "Vomit." I don't like the song itself very much, but I fucking admire its moxy: backup Girls-ettes throw down a soul finish. And I worry about his remaining stash of "Honey Bunny"s.