Built on the powerful songwriting of Christopher Owens and the ethereal production of Chet "JR" White, Girls recorded Album in a variety of bedrooms and rehearsal studios in their adopted hometown, San Francisco. The resulting 12 tracks are the perfect San Fran summer record, evoking a narcotic, sunny afternoon in Dolores Park, yet promising the eventual hangover of summer's departure. Album is self-described as "honest, loose, ethereal, obnoxious and perfect," it is a sincere tribute to the majesty of great pop music and the healing power of rock and roll.
Review by Jason Lymangrover
As yet another indie pop album heralded in by a snowstorm of internet praise largely the result of three brilliantly shot heroin chic videos for "Hellhole Ratrace," "God Damned," and "Lust for Life," Girls' 2009 album (simply titled Album) actually proved itself worthy of the hype upon its release. Comprised of two free-spirited San Francisco burnouts (one appearing relatively clean cut, the other greasy haired and disheveled) JR White and Christopher Owens go for the Mellow Gold with their take on D.I.Y. California pop. Where the similarly blog-toted Wavves offered a pill-popping, pot-fueled skater's perspective on fun in the sun, Girls offer up a similarly thrifty and drug-addled ode to the warm climate, but filtered through a pair of green-tinted hippie shades. In their brand of lo-fi, they opt to go against the momentary trend of recording to the red, and instead use an earthy approach, with clean Ariel Pink guitar twang and Spiritualized psychedelic plate reverbs. White plays the producer role, acting as a fly on the wall at times, and at others layering shoegaze swells to fill the backdrop of Owen's minimalistic, squeaky voiced guitar ballads. Simplicity is the duo's ally, as is their knack for keen Beach Boys melodies. It's not anything that hasn't been tried before, but the two 29 year olds have chemistry, and they deliver a consistent batch of songs that sound at once warm and familiar. As a whole, everything's relaxed and dreamy, perfectly matching the '70s aesthetic of their videos: washed out with over-exposed sun streaks, and a Crayola watercolor pallete. A few songs take a turn to the unexpected. The rough-and-tumble "Big Bad Mean Mother Fucker" appropriates a '60s song about driving a muscle car to the surf (think "Little Honda") and runs it through a dirty ringer of garage grime, while "Headache" takes a tongue-in-cheek lounge-ballad approach, complete with jazzy key changes, and, of course, added beach sounds. Among the slight detours, the majority of the album always manages to stay true to the baked-summer pop aesthetic. "Summertime" is a slow burner that encourages free-spirited 'tude with lines like "Lay in the park, smoke after dark, get high like I used to do/ Summertime, soak up the sunshine with you" before detouring into a blistering synth inferno. Meanwhile, "God Damned" is a catchy little acoustic and bongo number, perfect for a Dolores Park picnic. There's no shortage of tunes to instantly hum along to, but still, the seven-minute "Hell Hole Ratrace" remains their crowning achievement.
Girls frontman Christopher Owens grew up in the Children of God cult. His older brother died as a baby because the cult didn't believe in medical attention. His dad left. He and his mother lived around the world, and the cult sometimes forced his mother to prostitute herself. As a teenager, Owens fled and lived as a Texas gutter-punk for a while. Then a local millionaire took Owens under his wing, and Owens moved to San Francisco. There, he and Chet "JR" White formed Girls, and recorded Album, their debut album, under the influence of just about every kind of pill they could find.
As band origin stories go, this one is so epically sad and squalid and ultimately triumphant that nobody could make it up. It's the sort of story that can overwhelm a band so completely that you never really hear their music; you only hear the story. So it's a tribute to Album that you don't need to know one word of that first paragraph to hear it as what it is: a dizzily powerful piece of work. That's partly because you don't need to know Owens' story to intuit that there's something going on here. When I saw the band play SXSW, knowing nothing about them beyond their compulsively listenable "Hellhole Ratrace" single, I wrote that the band's music sounds "like the work of one deeply weird and possibly sad person."
That's largely because of Owens' enormously evocative voice, a hiccupy thing that feels like a direct descendant of every sad nerd genius in pop history. The immediate obvious reference point is Elvis Costello, but you can also hear shards of Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison and Paul McCartney and Morrissey. Owens never brays or moans or snarls; he sings simple songs about heartbreak with the internalized classicism of someone who's been listening to oldies radio in his sleep his whole life. He's playful; he has fun with it. But there's always a wounded, raggedy quaver at the back of his throat, one that implies worlds of hurt beyond the simple breakup songs he's singing.
And make no mistake; most of the songs on the Girls album are about, well, girls. Owens reportedly wrote much of the album in the aftermath of a bad breakup. There's one song called "Laura" and another called "Lauren Marie", so he's presumably got someone in mind. But he never falls into emo laceration, instead delivering his sentiments with conversational directness: "You've been a bitch, I've been an ass/ I don't wanna point the finger; I just know I don't like this, I don't wanna do this." But even his most innocuous classic-pop lyrics hint at a deep-seated fucked-upedness. On "Goddamn", he gets downright creepy over glimmering acoustic guitars and "Ghost Town" percussion-rattles: "Just give all your attention to me." "Headache" is just as fragile and reverby, and Owens cops a half-joking lounge-singer baritone to sing, "Let's be the people that we want to be/ Let's live like we could never part"-- implying, of course, that he's not already the person he wants to be. And he starts out "Hellhole Ratrace", the band's first single, with this: "I'm sick and tired of the way that I feel." He's a broken man.
Musically, Album is mostly sunny Beach Boys pastiche, but it's not the kajillionth indie attempt at orchestral Pet Sounds majesty. Rather, it's simple and forthright early Beach Boys stuff: compact guitar-jangles, sha-la-la harmonies, muffled heartbeat drums. It sounds great. And even though it has a basic core sound, Album manages to cover a lot of aesthetic ground in its 44 minutes. Without being showy about it, they swing from rushing power-pop to acoustic campfire laments to "Morning Light", which is one of the most fully realized slices of shoegaze revivalism I've heard in years. If they'd made an entire album of songs like "Morning Light", Girls would be getting a ton of blog love, but they decided to go for something at once messier and simpler. And they're getting a ton of blog love anyway.
There's a pillowy quality to many of the sounds on Album, but this isn't lo-fi or glo-fi or whatever. Rather, every little production flourish is so much a part of the whole that you don't notice it until the 10th or 15th listen. On "Lust for Life", for instance, there's a melodica that bubbles up on the second half. "Big Bad Mean Motherfucker" is joyous beach-party stuff, but there's a beautifully discordant guitar solo in there. "Hellhole Ratrace" builds to an epic guitar whoosh halfway through its seven minutes, but the beat's hammer never quite falls; the drums stay just slightly off. The guitars on "Lauren Marie" twang like Duane Eddy's. All this stuff functions like the sleigh bells on Liz Phair's "Fuck and Run": subtle little intuitive details that you might never notice but that add to the devastating whole. The canniness of Album's production choices and the scuzzy depression of the lyrics and the gut-level songwriting instincts, along with everything else about the record, add up to something elusive and fascinating-- maybe even heartbreaking.
— Tom Breihan, September 25, 2009