Album Review: Girls - Album

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Girls - Album
Girls - Album (Image courtesy of True Panther Sounds)

On their debut album Album, San Francisco band Girls deliver a messy, spectacular collision of singer-songwriter sensibilities and noisy, bratty indie rock. Songwriter Christopher Owen whines and wails, spewing half-poetic motormouth lyrics like a 2000s gutter-punk Elvis Costello. It's charming enough, and the music journalism arbiters of hype have been rewarding Owens and bandmate Chet "JR" White with heaps of praise since the release of their 2008 single "Lust for Life." With the arrival of Album, this buzz has reached a fever-pitch.

So what is so compelling about Girls? Well, the band's music aside, their enigmatic and inaccurate moniker and their spare but gorgeous album art don't hurt. It's Owens' backstory, however, that seems to be the alluring "It factor" in the band's relationship with the press. Born into the sexual-abuse-crazed cult Children of God, Owens traveled through Europe and Asia panhandling with the other children in the group until he fled, eventually living in Amarillo, Texas as a drug-addled teen runaway and later moving to California and forming Girls with White.

Yet as bizarre as Owens' life story is, it can't make Album into the album of the year, and despite the hype, Girls doesn't quite deliver. The record is winningly petulant and often impressive, but isn't quite the masterpiece that some have touted it as.

The good news is that the album's sound--engineered primarily by White--is entertaining throughout. On more upbeat numbers, Girls adopt a trashy, noisy, stripped-down reworking of rockabilly and surf-rock styles. The warped Beach Boys throwdown "Big Bad Mean Motherf****r" is especially fun, with Owens proclaiming "I've got a high school crush on a California girl, oh yeah/ I've got a cool guitar and a bag of marijuana, man!" over throbbing, feedback-drenched chords and cooing doo-wop backing vocals. Elsewhere, the sound is somber, with plaintive guitar strums, Owens' reedy voice, and a thin layer of noise. Even "God Damned," which has an urgent pace, feels bogged down by the cloud of feedback.

Owens' lyrics, too, are great. "Lust for Life," the song that kick-started the band's moment in the sun, is a clear highlight. Owens rushes headlong into the lyrics, his voice oozing desperation as he rattles off desires, most memorably including: "I wish I had a boyfriend," "I wish I had a lover" and "I wish I had a pizza and a bottle of wine." The wiry guitar strums and thudding drums sustain the song's despondent energy right to the close. "Ghost Mouth" is another gem, laced with more of Owens' frantic pathos. The song's beat trudges along, and the chorus' beautiful melody mirrors its delicate sentiments: "Now I'm a ghost man in a ghost town/ and I just wish I could get out/ and get up to heaven."

Shortly after Album's lengthy centerpiece, "Hellhole Ratrace," winds to a close, though, it's hard not to become impatient. The twin engines of Girls' sound are Owens' ornate, dejected lyrics and the messy yet often gorgeous sound-clouds that White decorates them with. The album's best tracks come when the friction between these two elements is at its strangest and most potent, which usually means the dreamy rock-history head rushes of tracks like "Lust for Life" and "Big Bad Mean Motherf****r." Owens' drearier songs often deserve better than the laconic, drifting guitar strums and drones they typically incorporate.

And Owens' words are prone to lapses, too. For all of the praise lumped on "Hellhole Ratrace" (Pitchfork, the self-appointed index of indie taste, listed it among the top 500 tracks of the decade earlier this fall), its central lyric--"I don't wanna cry/ my whole life through/ I wanna do some laughing, too"--becomes dull and overwrought after several minutes of repetition.

Overall, Album is a good record, and a very promising debut, but it's hardly the masterpiece that some have touted it as. Still, it's a fun record, and one that reeks of ambition. Perhaps Girls will grow into the hype surrounding them, but if not, Album still contains a handful of great songs, and there's nothing wrong with that.