The success story of a band like Girls seems improbable and yet somehow pedestrian in 2011. The banality of the situation is obvious – two dudes united by a slacker aesthetic, recreational drugs, and a love of music actuated by said drugs dole out lo-fi stoner rock rife with both psychedelic approbations and self-deprecation. This sort of music – which champions a scrappy willfulness for surf rock and other sun-soaked bits of 1960’s nostalgia – seems omnipresent today, particularly if you consider the good fortunes of like-minded acts such as Wavves, Best Coast, and Ariel Pink. The critical acclaim of these bands encourages the notion that anyone within reach of an iPad and a Bandcamp account could be churning out jams of a similar bent.
Yet the universality of the situation is also precisely the reason why the ascendancy of Girls into the realm of corporate journalism and late-night TV spots is so inconceivable. In a Google-dependent world, it’s quite a distinguished achievement for a rock band with such a prosaic name and an even more commonplace album title (See: 2009’s Album) to find itself now appearing in the pages of Rolling Stone and the studio of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Yet, here we are.
Riding a surge of momentum that began with their aforementioned debut and continued through last year’s Broken Dreams Club EP, Girls’ Christopher Owens and JR White return with an expansive sophomore effort that finds the San Francisco duo using its nascent popularity to take advantage of luxurious studio accommodations. The group’s plebian themes of unrequited love and enervated relationships still abound on Father, Son, Holy Ghost, but the wry atmospheres and nonchalant charm of Album have been replaced by more opulent arrangements and capacious song structures that sometimes take more than 6 minutes to unfurl.
One of the most immediate differences on this latest Girls offering is Owens’ voice; the mopey naivety is as strong as ever, but he seems to have replaced the nasal moan espoused on past releases with a more sultry and robust timbre. This change makes itself known on the album’s boogying opener, “Honey Bunny,” in which Owens candidly sings to his mother about a girl who “might be right around the corner” and will tell him that “everything will be alright.” Spunky and brisk, the track is one of many to utilize female backup singers and tremolo-affected organ harmonies.
“Die” is a slice of classic rock heaven, a largely instrumental track boasting thunderous drum fills and a killer guitar riff that could’ve very well been copped from either a Cream or Deep Purple record. It’s an unhinged jam session that also includes urgent warnings of impending demise from Owens.
The album’s middle section yields the record’s most comprehensive songwriting. The wispy frailty of “My Ma” goes deeper than rock and roll, echoing the blues with overwrought sentimentality (“Oh God / I’m tired / and my heart is broken”) and simple yet deeply affecting guitar melodies. “Vomit” expounds on this concept, employing extreme dynamic contrasts, cathartic soloing, and a dirge-like tempo to exemplify the struggles of a deeply sullied man looking to claw his way out of the darkness (“Nights I spend alone / I spend alone looking for you, baby”). “Just a Song” might be Girls’ most unorthodox move to date, replete with Spanish classical guitar, gossamer flute motifs, and a cyclical mantra (“Love / love / love / it’s just a song”).
At nearly 8 minutes though, it’s “Forgiveness” that stands out as Holy Ghost’s choicest track. Framed by the sedate strums of an acoustic guitar and an unobtrusive drumbeat, the song reminds us that “nothing’s gonna get any better / if you don’t have a little hope / if you don’t have a little love / in your soul.” It takes nearly 7 minutes for things to reach their emotional apex, as the rest of the band finally comes crashing in and then delays resolution further until Owens exclaims “I can hear so much music / and I can see everything now.”
Even the less adventurous tunes still please, if for no other reason than the primal joy of listening to a band performing meticulously crafted rock music. “Saying I Love You” seems like it could’ve been a lost Tom Petty cut, all strummy guitar work and jangling textures. “Magic” also seems indebted to 1970’s AOR, channeling the amiable pop playfulness of Fleetwood Mac or the Eagles. Only in the homestretch do things stall slightly; “Love, Like a River” comes off as derivative pop convention after such a transcendent sequence of knockout tracks, and closer “Jamie Marie” fails to match the hypnotic resplendence of its Album companion number, “Lauren Marie.”
The dichotomy exemplified by Girls’ newfound notoriety is a topic unto itself, one that should probably be left to the pop music junkies who will assemble this decade’s VH1 retrospective in another 15 years or so. Until that time arrives, we’ll have to confront a more obvious truth – the allure of Girls is completely palpable, if not irresistible. Maybe it was the double entendre implied above that first got them noticed, but hopefully it’ll be Girls’ simple paeans to the human emotional rollercoaster that earn them a spot in 21st century pop music history.