There was a time, a couple of years ago, when you couldn't read anything about San Francisco's Girls without having to slog through their origin story. It made sense; it's quite the tale.
Singer and songwriter Christopher Owens was born into the now-infamous Children of God cult. His brother died early in his life because the cult forbade medical care. His dad scrammed soon after. His mom was forced to prostitute herself. He ran away and lived as a street punk in Texas for a time before getting picked up by a generous millionaire and making his way to San Francisco. There he met his Girls partner Chet "JR" White and started the band. It's a flabbergasting saga. Seriously, the average Lifetime movie is easier to believe.
Apart from being just a remarkable story, it also made a lot of sense as context for their 2009 debut, the cheekily titled Album. It's filled with songs that move with punk energy through '60s-style pop rock. The results were some of the most engaging and energetic indie-rock songs of the year. Opener “Lust for Life” jangles along an addictive-as-crack riff as Owens rants with defiance about how he's going to succeed despite his fractured psyche. Sporting a charmingly strained, nasal croon, much like that of Elvis Costello, he glides through wonderfully neurotic lines like, “I wish I had a boyfriend/ I wish I had a loving man in my life/ I wish I had a father/ Maybe then I would have turned out right.” As with many songs on the album, it mixes elation and depression so seamlessly that it makes Owens' back story surprisingly credible.
This wasn't the case with last year's Broken Dreams Club EP. Dropping the punk edge, Girls go all in for melancholic '60s and '70s rock with unexpectedly affecting dividends. Owens smooths his voice in slap-backed Buddy Holly-style numbers that explore heartbreak far more commonplace and accessible than the tracks found on Album. The lone exception is “Substance,” a trippy ballad in which Owens encourages drug use in a narrative rich with suicidal undertones.
For both better and worse, these head games are gone on Father, Son, Holy Ghost, the band's lush and expansive sophomore LP. Maintaining the generously reverbed pop aesthetic of Broken Dreams Club, Girls add flashes of '70s arena grandeur. The seven-minute “Vomit” crescendoes into a huge, organ-and-riff-bound catharsis complete with a soaring gospel choir. Opener “Honey Bunny” rides an unstoppable guitar line that's remarkably similar to “Lust for Life,” but here it's beefed out with a chugging bass line and gravelly distortion. The wiry sound of “Lust for Life” was meant to bring nerve-tingling tension to small rooms. “Honey Bunny,” with its booming sound, could fill the largest rock clubs and arenas. It's impossible to say how much the marketability of this new style played into the band's choice to go there, but there's no denying that it's a far more approachable sound than the one they started out with.
Girls have become a band that stands apart from their well-documented origins, and that extends beyond their new sound. Owens' songs here stray into typical rock themes — unrequited love, feeling like an outsider — in a way that's far more inclusive than specific. “Alex” is a charming ode to a person that no one seems to notice but Owens. “Alex has blue eyes, well who cares?,” he sings, “Oh, I do.” It's a touching and easy-to-grasp sentiment, one that doesn't fly in the face of Owens' outsider past, but certainly doesn't lean on it for meaning. Also altered are the gendered pronouns. The closest he gets to the sexual confusion of “Lust for Life” is choosing the ambiguous name “Alex.” All the other love songs here are clearly directed at “she” and “her.”
This is not the Girls we knew two years ago. Gone are the notes of super-charged conflict and desperation that connected Owens to his Ragged Dick-like assent. These are assured classic rock songs that breathe fresh feeling into sounds that never really got old in the first place. It isn't quite as unique, but they wear it well. It doesn't lend itself to cookie-cutter write-ups tying Owens' frenetic songs to the upheaval of his past, but maybe that's a good thing. Girls have separated themselves from their myth, and now they can set about writing their own history. What will we be saying about Girls two years from now? That's up to them.
— Jordan Lawrence is assistant editor at Charlotte-based Shuffle Magazine and a contributing writer at The Independent.
who: Girls, with Nobunny and Papa
where: The Orange Peel
when: Thursday, Sept. 15 (9 p.m. $14/$16. http://theorangepeel.net)