I t’s not very often that a musician applies the common cliché “honesty is the best policy” to his or her song writing. It’s obscure nature of some lyrics that gives us some of the most poetic and fantastic verses in music. We might not know exactly what Beck’s singing about having a devil’s haircut in his mind or when Jim Morrison of The Doors opens his mouth, but it sure is great to wonder. In fact, it seems that many critics are averse to lyrics based off of honesty and straightforwardness because they seem crass, boring, or uninspired. Perhaps that’s what makes Girls, a San Francisco duo composed of Christopher Owens and Chet White, such a compelling band. The band’s previous releases, Album and the EP Broken Dreams Club, have had otherworldly praise heaped upon them despite lyrics that invoke such clichés as “he’ll never know about the times that you cried in the movies” in the song “Oh So Protective One” and “I wish I had a suntan, I wish I had a pizza and a bottle of wine” in the song “Lust For Life”. Lyrics such as these are then plastered into songs with a lo-fi, surf rock haze.
The secret behind this band’s critical success ultimately relies upon the lead singer/songwriter Christopher Owens, whose tragic back-story involving growing up in the Children of God cult, living on the streets of San Francisco, and drug addiction has been documented exhaustedly every time the band releases new material. While Owens’s story isn’t a lyrical crutch he abuses, it has undoubtedly affected his musical output. His policy of full disclosure of his past manifests itself in beautiful songs that are bolstered by his vulnerability and sincerity rather than the sometimes cliché nature of his lyrics.
This sense of vulnerability is what defines Girls’ latest release, “Father, Son, Holy Ghost”. This album differs from the band’s previous efforts in that it abandons the lo-fi roots that defined their first album in favor of a higher quality sound hinted at throughout Broken Dreams Club. In fact, Girls have filled this album with incredible amounts of instrumentation from string and horn sections to backing gospel choirs. However, while one could easily see how such lush experimentation could end in disaster (see MGMT’s Congratulations), the album does not get crushed under the weight of its own ambition and rewards the listener with an amazing and emotionally heavy experience.
Father, Son, Holy Ghost comes rumbling out of the gates with “Honey Bunny”, a song with a bouncy beat complete with a riff that would make any classic surf rock song from the ’50s proud. Immediately, one can see that Girls is going for a much fuller sound this time around. Additionally, this song, as well as many other throughout the album, carries with a slight country influence, further expanding upon their previous release, Broken Dreams Club. Following “Honey Bunny” is “Alex”, a song with a more downtrodden feel and nihilistic lyrics than its predecessor. This song is marked by its subdued vocals that make it somewhat difficult to discern lyrics (in a good way) and hearken back to the band’s lo-fi days. This track is followed by “Die” an aggressive guitar driven track full of distortion and angst. With about 2 minutes left in this track, the song suddenly transitions into a hazy, down to earth song that eerily echoes “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” by Pink Floyd. “Saying I Love You” follows “Die” and is another country influenced beat with rather playful instrumentation. The next track, “My Ma” is oddly reminiscent of The Walkmen’s song “Lisbon” in parts with a distinct slide guitar sound. Additionally, this track features a backing choir that adds emphasis and emotional impact to the song and hints at the backing vocals used in the next track, “Vomit”.
Because Owens’s singing style is based around his sincerity and vulnerability, he has a distinctly soft delivery in his vocals without sacrificing his conviction and innocence. Additionally, it cannot be denied that Owens has a rather limited vocal range that prevents him from hitting any spectacular highs or lows. Thus, by upgrading the band’s sound to a fuller instrumentation with a backing choir, Girls risks drowning out Owens’ voice with other instruments or simply making him sound inadequate to the talented backup singers the band employs throughout the album. It’s truly a wonder then that Girls not only avoids this possible caveat, but succeeds in actually accentuating and supported Owens, rather than outperforming him.
“Vomit”, the album’s centerpiece, is the best example of the delicate balance Girls succeeds in with an atmospheric opening that is eventually pierced by exploding drums as Owens sings about “looking for love”. Eventually, we’re treated to a gospel choir with an impressive backing vocalist that’s reminiscent of another Pink Floyd song “The Great Gig In The Sky” (I guess I’m just in a Pink Floyd mood). Despite all the activity throughout the song, one is never distracted from the main vocals of the song, an impressive feat. Similar to how The Rolling Stones used horns to accentuate the swagger and badassery of Mick Jagger’s voice while never upstaging him, Girls have accomplished the same thing but have instead chosen to complement the vulnerability and sorrow in Owens’s voice.
Although it faces the prospect of following “Vomit”, the next song on the album, “Just A Song” understands its role on the album and mellows out the emotional weight of the previous track. It’s a subdued song that develops from an acoustic rambling to a rather sad song about how it “seems like nobody’s happy now”. Additionally, the song continues with the varied instrumentation of the album by unexpectedly including a violin at one point. Bringing back the playfulness of “Honey Bunny”, “Magic” lightens the mood of the album and recalls the wistful nature of songs of Album before descending into the sprawling eight minute song “Forgiveness”, another album standout. For much of this song, we are treated to a brooding instrumentation that eventually crescendos with about two minutes left.
Bringing the album to a close are the tracks “Love Like A River”, a song with playful backing piano chords that are supported by backing vocalists, and “Jamie Marie”. This closing track, a likely reference to a previous Girls song, “Lauren Marie” opens with an acoustic guitar and eventually finishes off the album with a beautiful burst of drum and keyboard flourishes.
At 52 minutes in length, Father, Son, Holy Ghost is certainly an extensive undertaking that is not for the light of heart. Girls is in no rush to say what’s on their mind and utilizes their improved production and ambitious instrumentation to its fullest extent. Those who are patient, however, will find this album to be a rewarding experience and is sure to be on many best of lists by the end of the year. The balance Girls have achieved between accentuating Owens’s voice without drowning him out is a remarkable feat and results in an album that successfully supports the emotional weight it’s trying to carry without sounding overly sentimental or cheesy. The result is, quite simply, a fantastic album.
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