[15 February 2010]
“It’s hard for me to induct Chuck Berry because I lifted every lick he ever played.”
—Keith Richards upon inducting Chuck Berry into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame
I was recently listening to an NPR podcast that was reviewing the past decade in music. A wide variety of topics were addressed but a couple stuck with me and I have been thinking about them ever since, with the first being the introduction of the iPod into the American mainstream. The music junkie and audiophile hoarder were no longer bound by their sprawling cd collections and the likelihood of misplacing tracks from one’s past became much more difficult when digital music became readily available and simpler to organize. And because of this amazing well of resource, people can now remain firmly entrenched in their past, able to channel their sense of nostalgia like never before. Now both fans and musicians can go much more easily through the annals of music history, scouring the sounds and hooks of their forefathers. Many bands over the past decade have been very successful at imitating some of their larger musical influences while putting a twist on their template that making it their own (See: The Strokes and late 1970’s CBGB, Interpol’s NYC take on the doom and gloom of Joy Division, Vampire Weekend & Paul Simon era Graceland and about two billion other instances). 2009 was the year that found the indie kids gravitating towards ‘60s stoned surf rock and nobody championed this retro sound quite as well as San Francisco based group Girls.
Even the venerable New York Times accurately pinpoints the obvious influences of the Beach Boys and Elvis Costello when talking about the group that blew up over the indie scene over the past year. But Girls throw a couple of fun curveballs that makes their music uniquely qualified outside of mere associations. There is the story recounted ad nauseum about lead singer Christoper Owens childhood and eventual escape from the Children of God cult. They also gained further notoriety through one of their music videos with a shot of a man lip-synching one of their tunes into another man’s cock. These boys may have some readily identifiable musical influences but nobody could slander their lack of ingenuity when it comes to effectively playing the publicity machine.
On paper, The Magic Kids are a perfect opener, playing a similar harmonizing pop that is a first cousin of the Girls sunny pop sound. But as soon as this group of earnest young men break into song, it is quickly realized that this evening will be a study of contrasts and that would perfectly demonstrate the roles and subsequent talents that most often times differentiates the opener and main act. Most of the band is dressed in standard hipster uniform: black rimmed glasses, perfectly messy hair and jeans so tight they cannot be possibly taken off without a spotter. But the easiest reason to tease the band is that outside of their lead singer, nobody in the band can sing worth a shit, begging the question why most of their songs involve shifting harmonizing from the supporting cast.
When their guitarist takes the lead on one of the tunes, I and the rest of the room suffer through his emotive yelping only to see him conclude the song by placing his palms on his face in perceived agony, an awkward, emotionally conveyed gesture that would even make Chris Martin blush. In full disclosure, there was a small group of people towards the front of the stage that hung on every note and sang every word to the group’s opening set, so perhaps I am being overly critical. But as soon as Owens and the rest of Girls hit the stage, it becomes quite evident who most people paid to see this evening.
The band mixes up their set with new, unreleased stuff and some highlights from their debut, Album. In between songs Owens and bassist JR White show sincere gratitude to their audience by initiating a handful of playful interactions. White’s bass playing is tight, as I imagine these guys were sure they could play these songs in their sleep before they saw the light of day. I am already excited to hear their next album as a lot of the “new” tunes show a lot of promise and some take completely different turns from anything on their debut. But the show, all evening long, belongs to Owens.
Dressed in a red striped polo shirt, tattoos visible on his wiry arms, Owens reminds me of a handful of guys I grew up with. The super smart, wise ass guy who was sneaking cigarettes when he was 14, listening to the Misfits and the Ramones while everyone else remained lost in Top 40 radio. The quiet but strongly opinionated guy that the jocks would tease but secretly wanted to befriend. Guys like this get a lot of attention without seeking any, mostly because they always have something to say. Even the new material that few people in the audience recognized were kept captivated because of Owen’s charismatic presence. The night has an extra eerie feel to it when Owens announces that his estranged mother is in the crowd this evening, watching him play guitar for the first time since he was sixteen (and most likely just before he ran away from her and the cult). His voice is evocative; dancing between playful, sunny observations and deeply saddened torment, and he has everyone in the room hanging on every one of his words, most notably during my two favorite Girls tunes, “Lust for Life” and “Hellhole Ratrace”.
As soon as the shakers start at the onset of “Lust”, the entire room starts dancing. Channeling his inner Buddy Holly, Owens goes through his list of desires to turn his life around. Some are juvenile and fun (“I wish I had a suntan / I wish I had a pizza and a bottle of wine”) and others starkly honest and forthcoming (“Maybe if I try / With all of my heart / I could make a brand new start / In love with you”). Perhaps it matters knowing Owens’ back story here, but even if you don’t you can hear the pleading embedded in this sun-kissed tune and imagine the pain where it comes from.
But it’s “Hellhole Ratrace” that acts as Owen’s confession for the evening. “I am sick and tired of the way that I feel” the song begins and the longer it goes on the more you begin to feel for the guy. The song is one of the band’s more sparse arrangements relying on Owen’s lyrics and voice to carry the weight. “ I don’t want to cry my whole life through / I want to do some laughing too” he pleads with his eyes closed and a small smile creeping up on his face and the song becomes even more devastating live than it is on the record. Even though the man has been running his entire life, it is clear that tonight he feels safe and that the stage is his newfound home.