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AU60: Girls album review

November 17, 2009

This was the lead album review in this issue, superbly illustrated by the excellent Mark Reihill. Seriously talented dude – he’s doing all the lead reviews now and the section is all the better for it.

GIRLS
ALBUM
FANTASYTRASHCAN/TURNSTILE

By now, you may well be familiar with the backstory of this San Fran duo (and if not, get thee to our Incoming piece on p. 19), but while it’s a ripping – and harrowing – yarn indeed, it doesn’t deserve to cast too large a shadow over the music on this splendid debut, already dubbed “a lo-fi Pet Sounds” by The Guardian. The pair are led by one Christopher Owens, a quintessential Californian longhair that bears ample resemblance to one of Wayne and Garth’s mates in Wayne’s World. He also has the faraway look of a man who inhabits a different world to the rest of us, which makes sense when you discover where he came from – a childhood stolen from him by the Children of God cult, before escaping to spend his late teens cultivating a fearsome drug habit in Texas, then being taken under the wing of a rich philanthropist who put him on the straight and narrow before he decamped to the bright lights of San Francisco, formed a band called Curls with his then-girlfriend, and then, when she left him, Girls with best bud and recording whiz Chet ‘JR’ White.

All of which would suggest that Owens and White are now fine, upstanding young men, perfect role models and pictures of sobriety. Not a bit of it. Their MySpace page lists the band’s official website as Drugs.com’s handy pills identifier, where you can input the code of whatever disco biscuit is in your clammy hand and instantly find out what’s in it. And in interviews, they’re not shy about their genuine love of prescription drugs, even going so far as to complain that they were stuck with ketamine during their first trip to the UK. Stoned slackers they are, and stoned slackers they sound, but to good effect.

Album wears its influences on its sleeve, jumping about from sun-kissed Californian pop to fuzz-drenched shoegaze and from Beach Boys-style surf to nervy nerd-rock, a comparison that’s helped no end by Owens’ Elvis Costello-style vocal tics – though he couldn’t look more different if he tried. Opening track ‘Lust For Life’ is a classic, happy-sad pop song in which Owens’ deals with the lack of a father figure in his childhood, declaring that “Now I’m just crazy and totally mad / Yeah, I’m just crazy and fucked in the head.” There are also references to the end of a relationship – probably the one that ended before Girls began – but it’s not a maudlin song. The melody is exquisite and the arrangement weightless, skipping along on a bed of tambourine and handclaps. The nostalgic, hedonistic video is a treat, too.

‘Laura’ and ‘Lauren-Marie’ are gorgeous, yearning love songs, but the very first single, the awkwardly titled ‘Hellhole Ratrace’ is the real jewel in the crown, a seven-minute epic that starts off at a gentle strum before exploding into life as a glorious, life-affirming hymn to sucking up your problems and getting on with enjoying life. Spiritualized, with their Royal Albert Hall-sized, narcotised take on gospel, loom large. Elsewhere, ‘Morning Light’ would sit well on The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart’s album with its frantic, soaring shoegaze, while ‘Big Bad Mean Motherfucker’ and ‘Headache’ are straight out of the early Sixties, the former a fuzzed-up ‘Surfin’ USA’ and the latter a rich croon, complete with wall of sound backing vocals.

Although defiantly lo-fi and a touch scattershot, the whole thing sounds gorgeous. White, whose brief it is to commit Owens’ songs to tape and silicon, has worked wonders – though Album is never quite sure what type of, er, album it wants to be, there is a measure of cohesion here. It sounds rich and aged, like it could scarcely have been made anywhere but San Francisco – all sunshine, warm breezes and the sweet smell of weed smoke. But if it does fall down, it’s in a few overlong songs and the constant flitting between genres. This is a debut and it sounds like it – the aesthetic and songwriting chops are there, but the vision and focus haven’t turned up yet. If they do, then we really could have a successor to Brian Wilson on our hands. Until then, enjoy a promising debut.

8/10

DOWNLOAD: ‘LUST FOR LIFE’, ‘HELLHOLE RATRACE’. ‘LAURA’.
FOR FANS OF: ELVIS COSTELLO, THE BEACH BOYS, THE PAINS OF BEING PURE AT HEART.

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