By Steve McLinden
Girls – Album (9/22/2009, True Panther Records)
Let’s start here with a quote from Diplo’s Twitter: “How iz there a band calld “girls” with dudes in it?” Yes, I’m sure hundreds of bands have called themselves [The] Girls since the advent of shitty rock and roll band names. This one is the recent product of one San Franciscan Christopher Owens and a couple of his dudes. The title of the album is not too complicated, it’s just Album. The CD case and the disc itself are ever-so-modestly printed on white with black capital sans-serif GIRLS ALBUM, almost as if it’s daring you to ask, “What, you want more? This isn’t good enough?” And it is simply that good.
This was one of the most-anticipated sleepers in a long while (pardon the duality). The seven-minute existential tearjerker “Hellhole Ratrace” had the blogs ablaze for the last several months and a number of demos were all over the Internet for a while. All I know is that Google-ing the band got progressively less difficult as the summer went on, especially after they made the cover of Fader Magazine. They were signed by indie giant Matador Records – well, not exactly. They got signed under imprint/associate label True Panther, which has thus far been known only to queercore trash Hunx And His Punx, but it’s close enough.
So, other than it being some slacker guy from San Francisco who sounded like a whine-affected Elvis Costello, we were just waiting to see if all these tracks we heard would wind up making for a good album. Not that having such a sound is a bad thing. It was like hearing the spot-on vocal manifestation of a discontented and uncomfortable young man as he begged, “So come on, come on, come on, and dance with me.” The other half of the duo is [male] Producer Chet Jr. White, who seemed to put an intense amount of work into the nuances of giving each track its own individual super-warm lo-fi summery vibe. Or maybe they just played it to an 8-track tape and put it on the album as is. I don’t know. The liner notes make sure you’re aware that no songs were recorded in the studio, and were mostly the output of playing the songs in various friends’ bedrooms and practice sessions in the Bay Area over the past couple of years. girls (lower-case g) was a long time coming to the Indie World Wide Web. So of course, I had to pre-order this CD and get on girls before the shitstorm.
And then it hit bigger than I ever could have predicted. I got the album in the mail on Monday, the street date was Tuesday, September 22, and then on Wednesday, having half-written this review, I got the seemingly cryptic text from my friend: xfd at p4k girls 9.1 bnm. That’s nerd/snob shorthand for, “Hahaha oh wow, indie-hegemonic website Pitchfork Media has awarded the album Album by the dudes in girls a review score of 9.1 and furthermore, they’ve declared it some of the Best New Music.” They blew up my spot! Sure, they’d already named “Hellhole Ratrace” one of the best hundred songs of the decade (like, I was totally going to wait 3 months to start that.) But I was supposed to be the one to tell you how much I love Album, and the Internet beat print media once again! What was I to do? Scrap my review, run an errand to Target, pick up laundry detergent, some zany melon-green picture frames and the exclusive new Pearl Jam CD? (aside: the sheer adequacy of Pearl Jam’s Backspacer truly made me depressed that my childhood is gone). No, no, the review must go on. That would be reactionary and the indie thing to do is to soldier on. “Sometimes you just gotta make it for yourself,” Owens calls out on “Hellhole Ratrace,” and gosh-darn it, that’s what I’m doing.
So though the album comes to us in late September, it feels exactly like noontime on a San Francisco spring day, when the haze has just burned off, when you know it’s not warm enough for short sleeves but you just feel the need to do it anyway. The first track, “Lust For Life,” is a great upbeat surf-y kind of song from girls’ perspective, a theme that seems to go back and forth between the role of a girl and being a guy heartbroken by a few of them. “Oh, I wish I had a boyfriend, I wish I had a loving man in my life,” Owens plays not-so-coyly. The handclaps come in and you feel like it’s opening right up to you, like it was being demo’d in your very own bedroom, while the guitars tool around like a backbeat pop song circa 1959. And then we go into “Laura,” a Beach Boys-like pestering of a young lass for a second chance backed by simple jangly chords. Later, the mostly-instrumental “Lauren Marie” has a similar Pet Sounds’ psych-pop feel concluded by a melodramatic ‘goodbye.’ The liner notes also include ‘70’s-stylized photographs of various girls with a title written below each. I’m not sure if the cute candle-lit blonde is actually Lauren Marie.
“God Damned” is another hippy-ass throwback song, with bongo drumming, the acoustic guitar and then switches it up with “Big Bad Motherfucker,” a tune you might expect to come from The Black Lips–“I’ve got a high school crush on a California girl, oh yeah, I’ve got a cool guitar, and a bag of marijuana, man!” with the surf-rock harmonic vocals and a Johnny B. Goode kind of riff tearing shit up. Yeah, it’s not exactly ground-breaking stuff. The New York Times called it “raw” and a “template” off of which others might base their future songs. Yeah, okay. Let’s go in that direction, rather than refer back to the history of rock and roll from which Album is all drawn. Oh, I mean, again, not like that’s a bad thing. It’s kind of a simple exercise in rock and roll songwriting. By this time next year, you’re going to be annoyed that we all tripped all over ourselves to talk about how great this album was, when it was never actually novel in the first place. But it is fun.
So perhaps I’m being a bitter downer because “Hellhole Ratrace” just came on and I was sitting at home alone on a Friday night, drinking tea while I concluded that paragraph. He doesn’t want to cry without doing some laughing too, basically. He wants to live a little. That’s all repeated for the seven minutes. The slow and drawn-out song, when I first heard it on satellite radio – no, I’m not going to admit to crying over a song, I refused to admit that The Antlers’ masterpiece Hospice made me cry when we discussed it on the radio recently. I’m not going to admit to such behavior in any sphere of media – but this song can strike that very special chord in your heart if you’re in a certain mood. Maybe wait until you wasted a whole afternoon playing FarmVille on Facebook before you listen to this song, and then you’ll realize what a waste of life you’ve been and how you really should call up an old friend and have some innocent adolescent fun outside again. This album is really bringing out the worst in me, as you can see.
“Summertime” kicks it like a total chill-wave tune with heavily-fuzzed (but not all too heavy) guitars, while Owens waxes nostalgic about smoking weed in the park. It gets to the least minimal-sounding point on the album, while lo-fi fuzzed up guitar work wanders around in space before coming back down to an acoustic repetition of the first verse. “Morning Light” does the same. Without shame, it recalls some Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth and then it kind of approaches as close to black metal guitar distortion as much as beach-punk-folk will ever get, I suppose.
“Curls” is an almost haunting little instrumental number, with sunshine-powered folk guitar just passing through, like Duane Allman and George Harrison were just chillin’ on a porch in Heaven and you were hearing it through the clouds. And then we close with another garage-pop anthem-could-be, “Darling.” I’m sure you could play a few of the three-minute numbers for the oldest of your baby-boomer aunts and uncles, asking if they remembered this from the summer of ’65 and you just might trick them.
Is Album an instant classic? Or, is it so derivative that it makes you want to lobotomize yourself just to fill it back up with a bunch of obscure garage-rock compilations of the mid-‘60’s like girls never made this attempt? Can it be both? For now, I’m just going to have fun listening to Album, and when inevitably tire of it, I’ll make a note to break out the CD again just before the summer season opens.