Sometimes, the music a band produces is inseparably connected to their story, creation myths of such proportions that they can either serve as substance where there is none, or instead dwarf very real talent. Listen now to the tale of Christopher Owens, songwriter, frontman and musical genius behind the San Francisco outfit Girls. Owens grew up all over the world in the apocalyptic Children of God cult; his brother died because of strict refusal of medical treatment and his mother was forced into prostitution. He then ran away, lived in the streets and was adopted by multi-millionaire who brought him to the West Coast. Owens abused many, many psychedelic drugs and finally gathered musicians around him to record an album named, well, Album, in 2009.
As far as band stories go, this one pretty unequivocally takes the cake. Despite being a sordid, saddening account, and being about as rock-and-roll as it gets, it could easily have overwhelmed any of Girls’ musical output and taken up all of the limelight. In many ways, it did stand at the forefront of Album, inevitably making its way into much of the lyrical content of, for example, “Lust for Life,” one of the strongest tracks of the debut: “I wish I had a father/ Maybe then I would have turned out right.” Nonetheless, these earnest, heart-wrenching wails were a big part of this first full-length’s infectious appeal.
Two years and an EP later, out comes this second album, Father, Son, Holy Ghost, which bafflingly takes all of this admittedly heavy weight off of its shoulders and crafts, very simply, a truly great rock record. We aren’t dealing with a masturbatory exercise in genre crossing, necessitating a good handful of hyphens and obscure name-dropping; instead of the newest batch of neo-punk-electro-funk-shoegaze, this is the real thing. Rock-and-roll. When the most fitting stylistic comparisons are to true legends such as the Beach Boys, Elvis Costello or Buddy Holly, you simply know that you’ve struck gold.
To begin with, the backbone of most tracks is made up of either tidy, upbeat pop rock or languorous acoustic strums. Occasionally, in the footsteps of Sergeant Pepper, a deep, soulful organ harmony, or loud, cheerful trumpets come in to add to the general euphoria, lending some instrumental diversity to the whole. Which is not to say that the album is monochromatic; only one song sits between “Honey Bunny,” the aptly named bubbly opening track reminiscent of the Flaming Lips at their happiest and most carefree, and the seven-minute “Die,” whose scuzzy, lo-fi drones quote Queens of the Stone Age fairly explicitly.
Owens’ vocal range also displays a startling variety that fits in very well with the outlook of the album. At his most charming, in songs like “Magic,” he lets loose a smooth, unctuous croon, which doesn’t stop him from voicing an angsty snarl in “Vomit,” or even a broken whisper for “My Ma.” Within the endless vocabulary of classic rock, Owens makes his pick of the most powerful song types and adapts his sound beautifully and appropriately.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this over-arching choice of genre to pull off is its lyrical content: In this cynical, often provocative day and age, simple, stripped-down lyrics usually come off as trite or even silly. Yet once more Owens rises to the challenge, and his wide-eyed naïveté effortlessly wins us over. Take for example the opening verses of “Saying I Love You”: “How can I say I love you/ Now that you’ve said I love you?” Instead of making us cringe, Owens’ unpretentious sincerity lends weight to his simple words, especially with the knowledge of his past.
This is what, in the end, constitutes the underlying punchline of Father, Son, Holy Ghost: When someone like Owens can sing about falling in love or missing his mother with such endearing immediacy, it discredits all of those bands that have time and time again relied on their bad-boy side-story to justify songs about “having it hard.” This album cuts through all of that to produce some genuinely good, nostalgic rock that defies all expectations.