Father, Son, Holy Ghost
(True Panther Sounds/Matador; 2011)
By Andrew Hall | 12 September 2011
More than ever, Girls sound utterly out of step with their surroundings. Unlike the many very good San Francisco bands to achieve national breakthroughs in the last several years, the duo of Christopher Owens and Chet “J.R.” White is no longer interested in anything immediate, stripped-down, lo-fi, or low-budget, their ambition growing with each new release. At this point, Girls has played countless songs live that have yet to emerge in recorded form, despite having released a lengthy EP (2010’s Broken Dreams Club) and multi-part suite (“Lysandre”) in the few years since their debut LP; and their lineup has changed on a seemingly by-tour basis, as have their songs, incorporating larger arrangements as they move further away from Album’s immediacy and closer to a sound that belongs to them only.
Father, Son, Holy Ghost, their Record 3 (as described by its cover, which also presents all of its lyrics for immediate consumption), is an even more grandiose expansion of the ideas presented on Broken Dreams Club, which at the time was described as “a sign of things to come.” Across its eleven songs’ very long runtimes, Girls make a remarkably strong case for themselves as the Californian answer to Spiritualized, reveling in all of the excess that such a comparison entails. Owens and White stretch the basic promise of early single “Hellhole Ratrace” into epic-length, Pinkerton (1995)-level testaments to Owens’ borderline childish self-loathing, reworking three decades of classic pop tropes into fragmented, painfully intimate tributes to love, loss, and the feeling of being utterly lost. The finished product is deeply eccentric, often massively lush, and further proof that Owens and White are two of the most vital weirdoes in contemporary indie pop.
Almost every song on Father, Son, Holy Ghost embraces multipart structures, with sudden detours only a few degrees removed from the bombast of Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell (1977) used to produce major shifts in tone. This is clear from the first minutes of album opener “Honey Bunny,” as about a minute and a half in the song’s driving rhythms drop out and Owens shifts from the object of his present affection to sing briefly of his mother before the song’s conclusion. This later happens in the inexplicably prog-laden exercises that make up the second half of “Die,” which starts to sound more and more like a Flaming Lips instrumental as it progresses, in the orchestral conclusion of “Just a Song,” and the massive resolution of “Forgiveness.” And like on Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space (1997), these indulgences serve as a reflection of their creator’s brokenness, his inability to both find any semblance of resolution, and to use classic pop song structures and tropes to work through these problems.
It’s an infatuation with classic pop of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s and a feeling of being completely fucked that really defines Owens’ songwriting more than anything else. This is especially true now that Doug Boehm has replaced White as producer and the band has incorporated a full-time keyboardist, who helps, along with a full-blown gospel choir, to turn many of these songs into aching country numbers with huge organ leads and guitar solos as absurd as they are vital. Songs like “Alex,” which maintains a propulsive rhythm atop squealing guitar solos, seem less heavy on the low-end than they would under White’s watch, his bass lines no longer the key melodic glue anchoring his band’s songs. “Saying I Love You,” which is one of those clever songs that effectively delivers a lyrical twist/gut-punch at the end of its chorus, gets a spacious treatment that makes room for Owens’ dextrous acoustic guitar work, making it considerably more digestible. “My Ma” and “Vomit” are bolstered at their climaxes by the sound of gospel choirs that wouldn’t have had any place on the band’s early singles, yet don’t seem completely ridiculous. In an interview last year, he introduced a song by saying that he wanted Taylor Swift to sing it; listening to these, you can almost be guaranteed he was sincere.
Ultimately, however, this album is the sound of “Hellhole Ratrace” gone supernova. “Vomit” repeats only a handful of phrases across its chorus and verses, with major shifts marked by the introduction of additional instruments, and uses the organ to pull off all of its transitions and shifts remarkably well, even as it suddenly starts to resemble Pink Floyd in its final minutes. “Forgiveness” drives this sound to its logical conclusion by blowing it out completely and totally, with Owens at his most simplistic as the music enveloping him sounds bigger, more totally his accompaniment than it ever has been before even as he’s reduced to undeniable clichés. That the band manages to pull it off demonstrates just how well Girls functions as a unit, with Owens’ sad-sackery never becoming completely unbearable, even as he’s recorded with microphones so hot that one can practically hear the saliva moving in his mouth as he sings these songs. Especially on the disarmingly straightforward and autobiographical “Jamie Marie,” a song Owens has gone so far as to correct interpretations of to early listeners on his Twitter account.
This is fated to be a divisive record. It’ll likely be easy to write it off as lyrically insufferable, as overarranged and overplayed, and exhausting at 52 minutes long with a handful of songs well past the five-minute mark. It’s an unexpected progression for Girls, but more than anything else it’s evidence that the duo likely has longevity well beyond what their buzzed-over singles displayed in 2009, a consequence of embracing many of the things that prompted early criticism directed at them—the petulance and the simplicity more than anything else—while both complicating their surroundings and keeping up their incredible attention to detail. In short: bring on record four. In the meantime, we have Father, Son, Holy Ghost: honest, occasionally crushing, often stunning, and all the better for the fact that Owens seems to be incapable of being anyone but himself.