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.