Girls return to the basics on 'Album'

By Nicholas Henderson

It isn’t very often these days a band wins over both the music blogosphere and the music journalism community with straight-up convention. Sure, the spectrum of hipness in music is pretty broad these days. But recently, the chances of finding glowing reviews that mention “lo-fi,” “noise” or some patched-together conglomeration of the two has become annoyingly high. This contributed to my pleasant surprise upon listening to Girls’ new record “Album”-alongside the fact that the album art for San Francisco looks suspiciously like an American Apparel ad. Rather than affecting the pretentions of shitgaze, tweecore, no-fi, artnoise or any other arbitrary moniker, Girls goes for genuine Californian sunny-day pop music. Chock-full of reverb-drenched guitars, supple melodies in the vein of Elvis Costello or Buddy Holly and lots and lots of lyrics about, well, girls, “Album” is a needed relief from a scene dominated by bands that disguise weak songs in cloaks of noise. Sure, there are splotches of electronic blips and wails of feedback on “Album,” but but they don’t define the songs, instead highlighting their strengths and supplying the choruses with that vital push over the edge into pop catharsis.

With a history like Girls’ mastermind Christopher Owens’, it would be na’ve to expect that all these luminous melodies could exist without a bit of noise around the edges. Owens grew up in the now-infamous Children of God cult, a staunchly dogmatic organization in which women, including Owens’ mother, are forced into a sort of evangelical prostitution. Rebelling at 16, Owens opted to leave the cult for a life on the streets. He eventually found his way to San Francisco, where he took refuge in the music scene, founding Girls with producer Chet J.R. White.

“I don’t wanna cry my whole life through/ I wanna do some laughing too,” Owens croons in “Hellhole Ratrace” among acoustic guitars strummed with just the right amount of laziness, and it’s moving that the guy has even arrived at this level of optimism. It’s songs like this one, whose repetition makes Owens’ sentiments stronger with each chorus, that make “Album” a compelling listen.

“Album” is full of these moments, where unadorned pop melodies are transformed into something more grandiose through striking arrangements and Owens’ hybrid Costello-Cobain lyrics. You aren’t sure whether to trust his easy sentimentalism on opener “Lust For Life” when he sings, “I wish I had a boyfriend/I wish I had a loving man in my life.” By the time the tambourine and radiant bassline kick in around the second verse, however, you’re clapping and dancing along, really hoping that Owens finds the pizza and bottle of wine he’s pining for. On stripped-down gems like “Ghost Mouth” and “Lauren Marie,” Owens’ vocals walk the thin line between Brian Wilson-style crooning and damaged fragility, birthing something a bit more melancholy than the walls of sundrenched guitars and bouncy percussion would suggest. Girls thrives on the blurry dichotomy between desperation and optimism present in Owens’ voice. Late-bloomer “Morning Light” has an almost My Bloody Valentine feel, with swirling guitars and breathy vocals about escaping into the light of a new day. Guitars snarl like hot rods in “Big Bad Mean Motherfucker,” and dance around the chords like steel drums on instrumental track “Curls.”

Simply put, this is a beautiful record, one that transcends its own hipness simply by being really, really good. Do yourself a favor-ignore the American Apparel models that grace the linear notes and let the simple beauty of “Album” reveal itself to you on repeated listens.