Girls, a duo from San Francisco, have quite a back story. Singer Christopher Owens was born into the Children of God cult, from which he eventually escaped at the age of 16. He then lived as a drug addled teenager in Texas before being picked up by a millionaire benefactor who helped him relocate to San Francisco, where he met band mate and producer Chet White.
Their debut album, simply called Album, was recorded under the influence of copious amounts of prescription pills. Yet it’s not a lo-fi, half-arsed, ‘will this do’ kind of record. Each song is expertly layered, with lazer-guided guitar solos and brilliantly pitched vocal harmonies reverberating around Owens’ cracked, hiccupy vocals.
The knowingly-titled opener Lust For Life is a rush of jagged guitars, tambourine, processed handclaps and some unexpected melodica over which Owens drawls “I wish I had a father/ Maybe then I would have turned out right/ Now I’m just crazy…fucked in the head”.
It’s Owens’ turbulent upbringing and recent separation from his girlfriend that influences much of Album, not just in the words he sings but in the general sadness that he manages to exude simply by sighing into the mic. Ghost Mouth, with its Be My Baby-style drum pattern, is a heartbroken tale of trying to get into Heaven, whilst the brilliant, almost jaunty Laura deals with the hurt of loss as only Owens can; “Now when I run into you I pretend I don’t see you/ I know that you hate me”. It also features some expert guitar noodling, which eventually takes the song into an unexpectedly psychedelic coda.
Musically Album is a hotchpotch of influences, with nods to early Beach Boys (the brilliant Big Bag), The Beatles, Elvis Costello and even Spiritualized. Recent single Hellhole Ratface is the kind of lovelorn, broken-hearted epic Jason Pierce would be proud of, all drip-feed drums, layers of discordant guitar noise and a central, repeated motif of “I don’t want to cry/ My whole life through/ I wanna do some laughing too”. It’s a beautifully bruised seven minutes that leaves you exhausted.
Much credit must go to producer and bassist Chet White, whose warm production allows the songs to either slowly unravel, as on the instrumental Curls and the haunting Lauren Marie, or hit their stride with a direct immediacy as on Big Bag and Lust For Life. Given the fact that most of the record was created in people’s bedrooms, White manages to make each song sound almost epic, or as epic as is possible through a fog of prescription drugs and crippling sadness.
Given the back story, the DIY artwork and the general druggy aesthetic it’s easy to be cynical about Girls. It’s testament to how good their debut is that all the hype and blog chatter is lost as soon as the opening bars of Lust For Life kick in. Created by two genuine outsiders and made with a refreshing lack of irony, Album is a welcome addition to the very best albums of 2009.