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Album Review: Christopher Owens – Lysandre [Fat Possum/Turnstile]

The evolution of Christopher Owens has been interesting and strange when you really think about it. Everyone likes to mention the time he spent growing up in a cult, probably because it makes for an interesting back story to the music that his band Girls would go on to make. Across two full lengths and an EP, the way that band transitioned from breezy and brash drug-fueled pop to psychedelic and hazy Pink Floydian pop was a thing of beauty. It gave off the impression that while there were other members of Girls, Owens really came into his own as a frontman during those formative years and distinguished himself among his peers. When Owens suddenly announced he was leaving the band in mid-2012, the main question everyone asked was why, because they had become so successful and respected. Subsequently and in promotion for his debut solo album Lysandre, the explanation becomes much clearer: there were no other permanent members of Girls besides JR White, and the revolving door of musicians was exactly what Owens didn’t want Girls to be. Better to make a record on your own the way you want to make it, and then play it live with a backing band that’s not expected to be anything more. So now more in control of his career than ever before, Owens continues to dream big from a conceptual standpoint while going a bit smaller when it comes to the music itself.

Lysandre is a smartly written and composed album that pretty much details the ups and downs of a relationship he had during the early days of Girls. He focused almost exclusively on women throughout Girls’ catalogue, so it’s no surprise that theme continues on his first solo record. Yet unlike songs about “Laura” and “Lauren Marie” and “Myrna” and “Jamie Marie,” this is an album about one person in particular, given the name Lysandre to protect the innocent. It’s also a very sonically linked record that rewards those that pay close attention from start to finish. “Lysandre’s Theme” is the :38 introduction to the album, and that melody pops up again in almost every other song that follows. The repetition stays with you, even as all the other parts around it move in unfamiliar and different directions.

Speaking of different directions, it’s understandable that Owens might want to distance himself from the scrappy prog/psych-rock sound of Girls, which is perhaps why this album presents a shift towards more acoustic and spare arrangements to create simplistic pop songs and ballads. You get a song like “Here We Go,” which starts off very lush and beautiful with an acoustic guitar and Owens staying so calm his vocals are almost a whisper. Lovely as it is, about halfway through a flute enters the mix and flutters around the melody in a very distracting way. It’s enough to pull you out of the song and make you question why it needs to be there at all. The same can be said for a saxophone on “New York City,” a startlingly cheery pop song whose lyrics are about desperation, poverty, drugs and violence – basically the antithesis of what it sounds like. It’d be one thing if the track was a sly attempt at subversive humor, but there’s no indication Owens is having a laugh or trying to be ironic, which in turn takes away any meaningful points trying to be made. In the end it just feels a little uncomfortable. Of course nothing quite compares to “Riviera Rock,” the strange reggae instrumental that sits at the center of the album and comes off like a cross between elevator muzak and the intermission music they used to play when they took breaks in the middle of movies. It’s the album’s true WTF moment, and likely only exists to help pad out the album’s run time, which wraps up at an extremely lean 28 minutes.

For the handful of faults that Lysandre has, there’s also a handful of very good things to help balance them out. Unlike the poorly managed mixing of “Here We Go,” “A Broken Heart” actually manages to pull off an acoustic ballad complete with a flute that doesn’t sound overbearing or enters the song from out of nowhere. Owens’ vocal also hits on just the right amount of tenderness and vulnerability that’s required for the subject matter at hand. The bouncy and fun “Here We Go Again” doesn’t make any real missteps either, and is a great reminder that Owens is still happy to write pop songs in the vein of some of Girls’ best like “Lust for Life” and “Honey Bunny.” The second half of the album is actually quite strong on the whole, and moments like “Love Is in the Ear of the Listener,” “Everywhere You Knew” and “Part of Me (Lysandre’s Epilogue)” are very grounded and connect on their themes of unease, depression and ultimately acceptance with a strong dose of resolve.

When you really think about the good vs. the bad on Lysandre, along with its length, it becomes apparent that Owens would have been smarter to have just released this as a 5-6 song EP rather than a full length album. It would have been a whole lot stronger in that compact arrangement with all the fat trimmed out of it. Yet there’s still something admirable about how Owens treats this record as more of a sounding board than something he’s deadly serious about. His goal was to separate himself from the work he’d done previously in Girls and try to string together some intelligently crafted song experiments in the form of a concept album. In those things he succeeded. While it may alienate some and disappoint others, it’s important to recognize that he’s still trying to find his own voice and sound, and those growing pains might take a bit. Don’t worry though, because Owens has made it clear he’s not going anywhere or plans to stop making music any time soon. With that in mind, it’s likely Lysandre will be seen as a brief detour on his path towards greatness.

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Album Review: Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost [True Panther]

We’ve learned so much about the band Girls in the past two years since their debut “Album” was released. The headlines almost always started by noting that frontman Christopher Owens grew up in a cult. The next attention grabber was the extremely NSFW music video for the song “Lust for Life”, featuring persons of various genders and sexual orientations lip syncing to the song while naked. And yes, one guy did use another guy’s penis as a “microphone”. In spite of these apparent distractions, the music itself was the ultimate selling point, a retro-fitted pastiche of 60s and 70s pop that was extremely earnest and often heartbreaking, equal parts familiar and catchy. It’d be easy to level criticism at the band for staying so firmly rooted in the past, but Girls have done great work trying to make the sound their own while also mixing it up just a bit to avoid getting too trapped in a certain style. One moment they’re channeling 3 minutes of Beach Boys pop, and the next they’re on a 7 minute psychedelic journey that’s a closer cousin to Pink Floyd. Somehow they’ve managed to make it all work, with Owens’ nasally voice playing the anchor and even proving that they can progress to bigger and better things with last year’s “Broken Dreams Club” EP. The hope with their new record “Father, Son, Holy Ghost” was to continue that forward march. By all accounts, they very much appear to have succeeded.

The record opens with the galloping “Honey Bunny”, taking a few cues from surf rock in the way the drums roll along and the guitar riffs tumble over one another like waves washing up on the shore. There are moments where it sounds like a team-up between Dick Dale and the Beach Boys, and the best part is it’s nearly as great. Pop culture aficionados should hopefully also associate the song title with the classic film “Pulp Fiction” and may note the sonic similarities to the first track of that movie’s soundtrack, the Dick Dale-riffed “Pumpkin and Honey Bunny/Misirlou”. In the case of Girls though, this is just a delightful pop song with cool origins. As a matter of contrast, “Alex” feels born straight out of the 90s, taking a much more shoegaze-like approach with some fuzz-inflected chords and some noodling electric guitar solos. The band does it without blinking an eye, and for whatever reason it works beautifully. The fuzzy guitars get a hefty burst of energy and a touch of prog rock ethos on “Die”, a track that rages for 3 minutes that are reminiscent of classic Badfinger or Deep Purple. Things get a bit more spaced out and trippy towards the end though, as a gently strummed acoustic guitar and a flute show up for the final two minutes of subdued instrumental that brings an unexpected grace to something that was so sharp at the start.

If you’re looking for the truly psychedelic though, look no further than the middle of “Father, Son, Holy Ghost”. Starting with “My Ma” and progressing through the two epic 6+ minute cuts “Vomit” and “Just A Song”, let’s just say that it would appear the band has been taking crib notes from some of Pink Floyd’s finest moments. The canyon-splitting guitar work and organ ring out very nicely on “My Ma”, though that’s relatively standard compared to what follows it. Everything hits harder and feels even bigger on “Vomit”, with the organ slamming in the chorus and the gospel choir backing up Owens’ intensely mellow vocals. There’s every chance that things could have gone completely overblown in the 6.5 minutes the song goes on for, but it’s Owens that keeps it grounded and within reason by being more Elliott Smith than Roger Waters. A nice solo acoustic guitar instrumental break for the first 90 seconds of “Just A Song” provides a welcome, intimate respite and introduction to the ballad. By the halfway point, Owens is chanting, “Love, love, love/it’s just a song” as violins, flutes and harps are woven between the acoustic guitar and drums. The song itself is gorgeous and drifting, very much akin to what you’d hear on a Spiritualized record.

Waking you up from the proverbial nap the middle of the record provides is “Magic”, a jangly guitar, AM pop number that operates with a certain Elvis Costello-ish aire about it. It feels very specifically placed in that position on the album so as to serve as a buffer between the nearly 7 minutes of “Just A Song” and the 8 minutes that make up “Forgiveness”. You don’t want two ballads of such length (let alone 3 if you count “Vomit”) piled on top of one another. Unlike some of the other massive songs on “Father, Son, Holy Ghost”, “Forgiveness” doesn’t pull any punches or play around with a whole lot of sonic textures. It is first and foremost a relatively sparse acoustic ballad, pushing us to pay close attention to exactly what Owens is singing about, something most succinctly summed up in the song’s title. For the final 2.5 minutes though, Owens takes a vocal break and thrashes out an electric guitar solo that sounds like pure catharsis. Here he is, begging to be forgiven, and that guitar ringing out into the somber melody is like the burden of all his problems being lifted from his shoulders. It is the album’s true highlight, to the point where it makes the final two songs left feel nearly unnecessary additions. Still, the organ and choir on “Love Like A River” makes it very much classically inspired by gospel/soul music, bringing yet another fascinating twist to what’s already a highly engaging record. Things close out with the somber “Jamie Marie”, in which Owens spends almost the entire track on his own, just a gently picked electric guitar and his voice. In the final minute of the song, an organ and the drums break through, but Owens has said his piece already, and they’ve simply shown up to play him off the stage. It’s an underwhelming way to close, but in light of all that came before it, it feels almost fitting.

There’s so much about “Father, Son, Holy Ghost” that you deserve to find out about yourself. Spending time with the lyrics, which are more often than not musings about relationships be they romantic or familial, only enhance the depth and character of the record. There are small, transitional moments too that you’ll uncover and hopefully find delightful the more times you listen to this album. It rewards your time and commitment to it, a quality that only the best of the best seem to have about them. For a band that apes a lot of classic sounds, Girls sure do an awfully great job with them – to the point where you almost think these guys would be huge were they around in the 60s and 70s. Imitating your idols is one thing, but to cut out your own piece of land among them, that’s impressive. Impressive to the point where “Father, Son, Holy Ghost” appears ready to be annointed as one of the finest records of 2011.

Girls – Vomit

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EP Review: Girls – Broken Dreams Club [True Panther]

Last year was very much about Girls. The duo of Christopher Owens and JR White made a whole lot of waves in 2009 thanks to their well-received debut record, ironically titled “Album”. Flanked by the two strong singles of “Lust for Life” and “Hellhole Ratrace”, Girls have become known for sunny pop with a strong 60s influence – great for a day at the beach or catching some waves. So after a year’s worth of touring around the world, including a high profile set at this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival, the band wants to send a love letter back to the fans that have supported them here there and everywhere. They’ve earned enough money for a proper trip to a recording studio and are eager to show everyone just how they’ve progressed. The result is the “Broken Dreams Club” EP, a six-song, 30 minute collection of songs that really is a celebration of diversity, change and the inevitable compromises we all make when things don’t work out the way we planned.

The “Broken Dreams Club” EP opens with “Thee Oh So Protective One”, a track that feels carved out of time itself, with Owens channeling his best Buddy Holly voice and the vibe being decidedly 50s in nature. It’d be the perfect sort of song to play at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance from “Back to the Future”. As the first piece of evidence that Girls are starting to turn into “young women” (pun 100% intended), the song is also spiked with a horn section that’s both surprising and a delight. As a new single and something that’s been played at Girls’ live shows since “Album” first was released, “Heartbreaker” is a delight. The guitars are remarkably crisp, and the light touches of keyboard with the harmonized chorus just adds a little extra magic to an already catchy and seemingly light song. Of course the stark reality is that the song is anything but bright and sunny, the title alone gives that away. Owens’ sad sack vocals are also another clue, as his ability to convey emotion with a simple chorus and the word “why?” is remarkably great. The five minute title track is a ballad measured out in slide guitar and wistful trumpet, and a splash of organ really brings out Girls’ alt-country side. It winds up falling somewhere between Wilco and Band of Horses…if they used trumpets. The horns show up again on “Alright”, though the jangly guitars really make the melody what it is. What turns the song really interesting is how free form and non-linear it is, largely negating a catchy chorus and verses to simply groove for a bit and keep your toe tapping. The entire second half of the song is just full-on instrumental, save for some echo-laden “oohs” and “aahs”, and for just a moment it feels exactly like something Broken Social Scene would do. Surf rock grooves come on board for “Substance”, which is either an ode to drugs, giving up on life, or both. “Who wants something real/when you could have nothing?/Why not just give up?/Who wants to try?” Owens sings, later proclaiming “I take the key in my hand and it takes the pain away”. The song’s not something you exactly want to be playing when trying to boost your mood, but then again neither are most Girls songs. The nearly 8 minute atmospheric jam session that is the EP closer “Carolina” takes the psychedelic path of least resistance. Effectively trippy is a good way to describe the song, and the main lyrical and catchy chorus portions of it are sitting right in between two instrumental ends. The issue with that midsection is that the way Owens sings it brings up strong memories of the “Album” track “Ghost Mouth”. Listen to both tracks back to back and try to determine how many vocal notes in the choruses are different. I’m willing to be it’s very few. Still, “Carolina” is a very good track and a rather cool way to finish the EP.

There’s great news for Girls fans on this “Broken Dreams Club” EP. The band takes a few steps towards improving their fidelity and diversity of sound, but come off no worse for the wear. In other words, it seems like they are taking the next logical steps forward, and it will likely work to their advantage once again for their sophmore album. There’s not really a clunker among this bunch, even if there’s some interesting stylistic variations. The very innocent 50s-inspired way that “Thee Oh So Protective One” introduces the EP may be effective, but the sharpest moments still remain in some of the catchier, faster-paced songs. “Heartbreaker” is arguably their third best song to date, even if it feels drawn from the same cloth that their debut was. It’s a track like “Alright” that really stands out though, relying much more on atmosphere and a groove than a verse-chorus-verse structure. Chances are that won’t be where Girls go next, but if they do it could yield something truly brilliant and innovative for them. As it stands though, you need to get this EP if you even like Girls a little bit. It’s the perfect little stopgap between where they were as a band before and where they might be headed next. Even more exciting times are ahead for this band, I can feel it.

Preorder the “Broken Dreams Club” EP from Amazon

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