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Girls
Album Emily Moore , September 28th, 2009 07:44

Sometimes the weight of expectation is hard to bear. The buzz that surrounds San Franciscan duo Girls has, in recent weeks, grown even bigger than the Van Halen-worthy hairstyle of their frontman, Christopher Owens (he is joined by Chet "JR" White on bass). As an indicator of early promise, and as an enjoyable summer soundtrack, Album is perfectly respectable, even if it could never live up to the hype.

On the teenage bedroom wall of indie rock, Girls are currently being pinned up alongside the holy trinity of smart pop: Brian Wilson, Elvis Costello, Morrissey. In reality, though, they're closer to Teenage Fanclub, Jesus & Mary Chain and Cockney Rebel. Impressive company to keep, but what singer wants to be told he sounds a bit like Steve Harley when he can go to sleep every night warm in the belief that he is the inheritor of Declan Patrick MacManus' sacred mantle?

Perhaps the most striking thing about Album is that, given its oft-quoted influences, it is blatantly derivative and its lyrics are dire. When these boys lift riffs or drum-lines, they lift big: from 'Back in the USSR' ('Big Bad Mean Motherfucker'), 'Just Like Honey' ('Ghost Mouth'), 'My Cherie Amour' ('Headache'), 'Darklands' ('Lauren Marie') and even 'Sweet Caroline' ('Laura'). The whole point of 'Back in the USSR', of course, is that it was part of a grand, playful, mutually respectful tradition of creative copyright infringement that stretched from Chuck Berry through the Beach Boys to the Beatles and onwards. But ripping off Neil Diamond? Really?

The first half of the album is unashamedly bandwagonesque. Owens' voice veers from nasal to snarly, from high and reedy to deep and husky. It's sometimes charming and sometimes grating, but never subtle. Opener 'Lust for Life' starts with a big, shiny guitar line that underpins simple, heart-on-sleeve vocals ("Maybe if I tried with all of my heart, I could make a brand new start, in love with you"); one by one, layers are addeed — doo-wop backing harmonies, shakers, handclaps and finally a harmonica — all of which build into a slightly rictus-grin celebration of summer and freedom and young love. 'Laura' continues with a jangly guitar line that underpins simple, heart-on-sleeve vocals ("Reach out and touch me, I'm right here"); one by one, layers are addeed — doo-wop backing harmonies, whammy-bar virtuosity and more sunny guitars — in a tale of summer and heartbreak and young love. Then, single "Hellhole Ratrace" stretches the prescription into a seven-minute epic. It's a pretty enough soundscape, kicking off with a bright, brittle guitar line that leads into simple, heart-on-sleeve vocals ("I don't want to cry my whole life through, I want to do some laughing too, so come on and laugh with me"); one by one, layers are addeed — watery reverb, doo-wop backing harmonies, tambourine, heaps of feedback, a euphoric ascending bassline, a chorus of hand claps — and so on. For seven minutes.

The rest of the album offers more variety, with mixed results. 'Headache' sounds like a lounge tribute to Spacemen 3, all husky vocals and washes of reverb over sweet bossa nova beats. 'Lauren Marie' continues the J Spaceman tribute, opening with sparse, echoey vocals, percussion and guitar, but overlaying syrupy strings: less 'Walkin' With Jesus' than po-faced Pierce solo, after he got God. Girls' relentlessly earnest tone is a fatal flaw — there is no humour, no self-deprecation to be found here.

Still, there are a few moments that floored even this cynic. 'Goddamn' is a tinny, scratchy, hissy near-outtake with gorgeous percussion that bounces between bongos, gourds and castanets. Owens sneers over it like Marc Bolan, all passion and vinegar. 'Big Bad Mean Motherfucker', which follows it, is a loving pastiche of early rock'n'roll that layers up fuzzy guitars and wild, arrogant vocals, dirty and sweet. The sound of it slithering up into existence, and then being sucked back down the plughole, is gloriously unexpected - the only part of the album that is. And both songs are barely two minutes long.

'Morning Light', on the other hand, comes from a different universe - it's like a worthy offcut from Isn't Anything, all angry, muddy guitar, furious drum fills and droney vocals. It has all the passion and danger the Big Pink failed to achieve, even if it's impossible to imagine Kevin Shields ever singing, heart-on-sleeve, "Meet me in the sky tonight, we could fly away together".

In the end, Album is a respectable debut, overshadowed by a terribly cynical industry move to try to flog it with Owens' heart-wrenching backstory. A troubled life, taking in - as the press release, Pitchfork review and everyone else dutifully repeats - a childhood in the Children of God cult, a disappearing father, a brother who died thanks to the cult's refusal of medical attention, a mother who was forced by the cult to prostitute herself, a long-running addiction to prescription and non-prescription drugs, and finally a sort of salvation via the patronage of a Texas millionaire - does not always a Brian Wilson make. Most of us would end up in therapy, or institutionalised, or Evan Dando - survivors, but not necessarily saints. They're no Beach Boys, these Girls, but they might be an early Teenage Fanclub. Their only problem, not that it stopped the Weegies, is that whichever song of theirs is playing, it mostly makes you wish you were listening to the original instead.

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