In a live setting, Girls’ appeal becomes more obvious. Frontman Christopher Owens’ haunting charisma and depressive charm somehow transforms into a commanding stage presence under the guise of his vintage rock ‘n’ roll. That was the story behind their auspicious debut from 2009, Album, widely lauded for its jaunty yet haunting acid flashbacks to ’60s pop. Since then, however, it has been about the development of the group’s sound. Owens’ uncanny charisma was never in danger of going anywhere; the only question was where would he take it next to avoid growing stale. And for all intents and purposes, the group’s Broken Hearts Club EP from last year provided a satisfying answer to that question. Horns bolstered a more colorful sound and more carefully crafted song structures, delivering more fully realized sentiments. What was raw, unwittingly precocious charm had matured. But it turns out that really was only a stopping point on their way to second album Father, Son, Holy Ghost.
Immediately, the lyrics reaffirm Owens’ edge, open personality on “Honey Bunny,” as he laments, “They don’t like my bony body / They don’t like my dirty hair / Or the stuff that I say / Or the stuff that I’m on / I’m gonna get you Honey,” while the music has blossomed even more with the help of a consistently present organ and choral vocals. But this doesn’t take away from the group’s jangle-pop backbone, it merely lends a robust lineup of weapons to supplement Owens’ original sound and flesh it out; the experience is no longer like enduring a refreshing-yet-retro acid flashback. Instead the band sounds firmly grounded in the here and now, retaining a perfect grip on their ’60s pop sensibilities while using contemporary perspective to infuse it with even more vividness.
The indifferent steadiness and persistence of “Alex” then transitions into an instrumental refrain, providing three seamless yet distinct melodies that speak for themselves. The guitar slide that leads into the chorus stomp makes “Honey Bunny” the most infectious track, while triplets and piano skip lend “Love, Like a River,” the feel of a pastoral love song written in a smoky lounge. The folk riff that introduces “Just a Song,” which could easily be mistaken for an outtake from Led Zeppelin III, mingles with the melancholy whine of the organ weighing down the rest of the track, and the heavy-handed minor chords that alternate with southern-inflected flourishes of misery and grimy guitar solos throughout “Vomit.”
With this record, Girls’ stylistic flair discreetly precedes the group’s edgy songwriting and mucking up of ’60s sunshine pop, and even steals the spotlight from Owens’ chilling stage presence as his lyrics take on fittingly antiquated motifs of love and longing. Girls do with pop music something that’s even more impressive than merely borrowing from it, they rearrange the past into something completely their own, utterly unique yet still reaffirming in its familiarity. Their ability to own their sound is rivaled only by the likes of Beirut, Sufjan Stevens and maybe one or two others. But the way in which they have achieved this rarified status is through eccentric and otherworldly songwriting; it’s as though they’re writing fiction.
But Girls do this through familiarity-familiarity disguised by Owens’ quaint rock-star persona and a dirty sheen. Other groups try it, but can’t pull it off with any such inimitability. And though Girls presents us with what so many other rock groups aspire to be, it’s easy to revere without remark because of its inability to outshine contemporary trends. And it’s this conundrum that stands at the core of the niche Girls have already created for themselves.
Video: Girls – “Vomit”