Indie and alternative rock have historically always used music from decades (and sometimes centuries) past as a means of gazing forward in concocting a new, rich and exciting tapestry of music. In the late ‘70s, you had the Talking Heads putting their own quirky stamp on what was essentially bubblegum pop. In the ‘80s, you had the likes of Hüsker Dü filtering their own brand of hardcore punk through the gauze of ‘60s mainstream pop and psychedelica. Similarly, the Replacements took elements of ‘70s power pop and pub room rock and crystallized those elements into their own brand of college rock. In the ‘90s, you had bands like Smashing Pumpkins and Soundgarden looking over their shoulders at heavy metal from decades gone by as a source of inspiration. Even now, indie artists tend to look back at previous stylistic templates – when they’re not looking at their shoes, that is – to arrive at a sonic mish-mash that they can call their own. Female-fronted groups like Tennis and Best Coast arrive at their surfy sounds through the mirrors of ‘60s girl group sounds. The recent Mister Heavenly album is an indie rock do-over of doo wop music. Bands like Fleet Foxes are simply updating traditional forms of folk with elements of ‘60s pop. And that’s not speaking of the fact that there’s a genre of relatively new music called chillwave that is wholly based on bedroom pop auteurs coaxing retro-infused sounds out of their Casios.
Where the San Francisco-based duo that comprises Girls falls into this equation is obvious by looking at their first two releases, 2009’s debut Album and last year’s Broken Dreams Club EP. The band has a clear infatuation with all sorts of genres ranging from ‘60s Brill Building-esque pop to country flavored numbers to music that is almost pastoral. Even their very name is a throw-back. If you do a Wikipedia search on the band, the disambiguation page for “Girls” lists an all-male English glam group named Girl from the early ‘80s, and another act with the same name who were a ‘60s American pop troupe. However, things are a bit different with the 21st century incarnation of Girls, The Band. This resurrection of past musical touchstones in their music seems to have little to do with liking certain styles and paying homage or respect to them, than by filling a black hole of lack that was previously denied to one member of the group. Much ink has been spilled already about the fact that singer Christopher Owens was brought up as a member of the Children of God cult, meaning that he lived a pretty much sequestered life as a youth in a world that was decidedly non-pop culture saturated.
Thus, when you listen to a Girls record, you get the sense that Owens is wide-eyed with wonder with the debris of popular music from decades past, something that he personally was unable to experience as a child. That sense of yearning, loss and infatuation has led to a meticulousness and fascination that universally translates to its music. When Owens sings on Album opener “Lust for Life” (itself a reference to a past Iggy Pop track) that “Oh, I wish I had a boyfriend / I wish I had a loving man in my life / I wish I had a father / And maybe then I would have turned out alright”, there’s a palpable angst which might have been cured with the possession of a decent record collection while coming of age. Still, this desire to be a part of something that is quintessentially cultural history by effortlessly referencing it and recreating it with a highly individualistic spin has earned the band high critical marks: Album made the Top 10 end of year lists from a smattering of publications ranging from Rolling Stone, Spin and Pitchfork to even, yes, the one you’re reading right now.
As good as Album is — and it’s a record that really takes a number of repeated listens to really grapple with its skewered take on music some 40 years gone now — Owens and his band mate Chet “JR” White have utterly surpassed themselves with the cosmic Father, Son, Holy Ghost. By and large, the duo sets its sights now not so much on the sun-drenched druggy ‘60s, but at the pomp and bombast of the ’70s, which, with all of the advances in musicianship and studio trickery (let’s ignore the contribution of punk for a moment, shall we?), might just emerge as the most interesting decade in pop music. There are moments on this new album that point backwards to not only glam rock but the progressive sounds of monster ‘70s groups, the most notable and noticeable being that of Pink Floyd somewhere between Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall. And yet, there are zig-zaggy detours into something forlorn and spacious, such as in the case of the bluntly-titled “Die”, which starts out as a replica of something in the Sweet or Badfinger catalog and gradually transforms into a Mellotron drenched mediation that is as soft and gentle as dew on a sunflower. “Forgiveness” crosses acoustic rock with the bombast of ‘70s prog-cum-classical music stage acts like Electric Light Orchestra. There are dips as well into Eagles-style country rock in the form of “Saying I Love You” just to rattle the cage.
Still, despite the infatuation with all things out of the Me Decade, there are still hints of the ‘60s to be found on Father, Son, Holy Ghost, most notably on the rollicking surf-rock-derived opening track “Honey Bunny” (a nod to Pulp Fiction, perhaps?), which merges Beach Boys-style melodies (in fact, the verses of the song sound suspiciously a lot like the verses to “Fun, Fun, Fun”) with a careening reverb-heavy Dick Dale-like guitar sound that embodies the thick timbre of someone playing a Les Paul made out of a telephone pole. “Just a Song”, meanwhile, reaches back eons with its lovely minor key classical guitar theatrics that gradually blossoms into a lush orchestrated stab at ‘60s baroque pop before backtracking to the song’s original Spanish roots with strings adorned in the last third.
The beauty of Father, Son, Holy Ghost is largely found in its soft underbelly: a mid-section selection of songs that almost makes the hairs on the back of your neck bristle. Starting with “My Ma”, the fifth song on the record, the vibe turns utterly stoner rock: it’s the sort of slow jam that you’d want to take a mushroom trip to with its touch of George Harrison inspired slide guitar and soulful backing female vocals cooing as though they’ve been teleported in from the bag of tricks conjured up by a couple of Britons who go by the names Roger Waters and David Gilmour. The unfortunately titled, but stark “Vomit” continues even further in that vein — another gradual crawl of a ballad that is full of theatrical prog rock touches. The aforementioned “Just a Song” completes this loose trilogy of middle-of-the-record ballad wizardry, though it could be argued that the gorgeous “Forgiveness”, which follows a scant two songs later, could be loosely considered a part of this trifecta.
Father, Son, Holy Ghost is a record about not being able to profess desire to the one you admire, the feeling of letting down those who are close to you, and begging for redemption from those that you have. It’s as though Owens has locked himself in a darkly lit room to emote his particular yearning. “How I can I say I love you? / Now that you’ve said I love you?” intones Owens on “Saying I Love You”, following that up later with “There goes my everything” at his in inability to articulate a basic tenement of being in a relationship, while the guitars in the solo do exactly that: articulate themselves in the literal musical terminology sense in the form of gently plucked staccato notes. The irony. A song later, Owens exhaustively muses “Oh God, I’m tired / My heart is broken / … I’m so lost / I’m out here in darkness”. It’s as though Owens is carrying a heavy bag on his shoulders, and just when you think the bleakness is about to break, things only get starker from there. “Vomit” carries the weightiness of “Nights I spend alone / I spend them running around looking for you, baby” — a sentiment that he has to repeat twice in the verse, which reoccurs as the de facto statement of fact throughout the song, as though Owens is in a state of perpetual confusion and can’t believe the state of loneliness he’s finally achieved. By “Just a Song”, Owens swirls even darker into despair: “It just feels like it’s gone, oh it’s gone, gone away / Seems that nobody’s happy now / Feels like nobody’s happy now”.
However, things are bright, shiny and new by the time the next song, “Magic”, rolls around, opening with the sunny, “Just a look was all it took / Suddenly I’m on the hook / It’s magic / … I feel like starting anew”. By the time you get to “Forgiveness” there’s a lingering sense of deliverance in the proceedings: “Nothing’s gonna get any better / If you don’t have a little hope / If you don’t have a little love / In your soul”. Ultimately, there’s a thematic underpinning to the whole of Father, Son, Holy Ghost that provides a richly dark and brooding emotional heft that eventually coalesces into something hopeful and transcendent, before plunging back into lovelorn depths of despair for final song “Jamie Marie”, another ode to falling back out of love. Seemingly, the songs are so unified, you walk away from the record wondering if it was written in order.
Unlike past Girls’ outings, Father, Son, Holy Ghost is bracingly immediate, a collection of songs that don’t have to grow on you — songs that are fully realized and lovable at first blush. While the album’s second half doesn’t really reach the dizzying heights set by the first seven or so songs — the group delivers a bit of a dud with the treacly doo-wop meets ‘60s soul of “Love, Like a River” as the penultimate statement and final ballad “Jamie Marie” is a bit underwhelming in addition, making the case that the album, at 11 cuts, is maybe two songs too long — the record is generally consistent, engaging and hauntingly beautiful. With Album, the Broken Dreams Club EP and now Father, Son, Holy Ghost, the band has delivered their own version of a Holy Trinity: two albums and an extended play that merit constant attention and examination. With this long player (and long player is an apt description as it runs about an hour in length), Girls have delivered a reflective, pensive and low-key love letter to styles and genres that have long since fallen by the wayside, but are apt for rediscovery and admiration. Given that the group is only a few albums into their discography, the following sentiment might be a little premature in the making, but this latest disc really seems to cement the notion that the collective combination of the songsmiths Owens and White simply cannot do no wrong, that all of that time spent kept away from the pleasures of modern music, at least in one member’s case, has simply fostered an entity that is bemused and bedazzled with the charms of the past’s reflective prism.