Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost (2011)
by Mike Mineo
Twangy rock with hints of country and alternative was prominent last year on Girls’ excellent EP, Broken Dreams Club. The feel was most notable on the self-titled track and closer “Carolina”, both recalling the likes of Ryan Adams and Matthew Sweet while remaining true to Girls’ eclectic pop approach. The group explores new territory within this particular sound on their second full-length, Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Its production techniques are in the same field of vision, but with less emotional ferocity than on the Broken Dreams Club EP. While Girls’ compositions remain atmospherically rich and engrossing, Father flows more like the infectious pop hybrids from their debut Album. It does so with the layered depth and elaborate stylistic variety of Broken Dreams Club, making Father the most consummately successful Girls album yet.
Along with “Die” and “Forgiveness”, centerpiece “Vomit” is one of several exceptions to the decrease in emotional complexity; its progression from ominous acoustic minimalism to full-blown progressive guitar-rock takes listeners by surprise at first, but by the time the second explosive verse arrives it plays with natural precision. After several alternations between the calm and the storm, the final two minutes present a new peak for the band. Combining southern-rock guitar theatrics with driving organs and backing harmonies reminiscent of soul, Owens repeats “come into my heart” over heavenly guitar licks and swaying organs. The guitars, which seem to swap between familial tones every other verse, resonates with clarity akin to acts like The Allman Brothers and The Band, able to cohesively alternate between devastating vocal hooks and lengthy guitar solos in a split second. Owens called Father a spiritual release, and this moment is the most prevalent testament to that. Even with the gospel choir and organs aside, “Vomit” maintains a spiritual aura that is indebted to a structure resembling an uplifting sermon; it ascends from ominous creaking to effervescent bursts of organ-drenched optimism with a divine-like inspiration.
The success of Girls’ looser and less dense material is predictable, but the songs on Father are anything but. The vintage surf-rock echoed on “Honey Bunny” practically prods at Girls’ abundance of Beach Boys comparisons. But on many of their efforts – and particularly on the subsequent “Alex” – the blend of gorgeous surf-inspired harmonies and interweaving guitar effects resembles power-pop heroes like Teenage Fanclub rather than stylistic pioneers in the vein of Beach Boys and The Zombies. Playing like surf-rock produced by a shoegaze or post-punk legend, “Alex” is an apt accompaniment to “Honey Bunny”, which rides on its punchy and quirky chorus (“They don’t like my bony body / They don’t like my dirty hair”) and fade-out, where jumpy electric swipes turn to delicate acoustic strums. As much as the chorus drives this effort, it is a marvel that “Alex” flows as successfully and with the same sort of infectiously hazy nonchalance. What’s most surprising is that it doesn’t show a chorus at all. It chugs along with starry-eyed romanticism, an object of desire repressed by feelings of inadequacy; the lush interlude in the last one-third provides its perfect accompaniment.
The direction of “Die” is both unsettling and completely unpredictable. After two accessible power-pop gems, Girls explode with an ambitious set of prog-rock that eventually concludes with a medieval-like jaunt. The ending, which features flamboyant acoustic fluttering and dramatic mimicking of woodwinds, is an interesting direction to take after three minutes of pulsating and heavily distorted guitar-rock. I never thought Girls would resemble a Queens of the Stone Age or Tool at any point in their careers, but the way it is accomplished here – with a constant reminder of Girls’ southern-rock playing styles – begs the question why didn’t it happen sooner. While less of a memorable experience than “Vomit” and questionably sequenced, “Die” is quite a worthwhile effort that showcases Girls’ growing virtuosity along with their growing closet of stylistic interests.
The most immediately accessible section of the album is the gut, right in the middle. “Vomit” is surrounded by several friendlier efforts. “Saying I Love You” will sound overly contrived to fans of Girls’ more daring approaches, but this country-pop charmer is a beautifully constructed gem that rides on the strength of its chorus. “There goes my lover, my everything,” Owens sings during the bridge, setting up for a chorus that takes full advantage of his voice’s delicate frailty. “I hear you crying / What can I do, oh-oo-oh,” he creaks here, the last word spoken with a quivering feeling of hurt. “You threw my heart away / You made me blue.” The lyrics are simple and the song is structurally thin, but it takes from a genre in country-pop where the classics are not necessarily strong in that department. It is a triumphant, hook-filled success and a welcome breather on Father. Equally dependent on its chorus is “Magic”, a playful effort with a wonderfully twangy hook. Wait for the chorus to expand the track into its bursting jangly goodness and then… it’s ma-a-agic with a little bit of madness. Girls comfort zone.
“My Ma” is the only track on Father, Son, Holy Ghost that sounds like it could possibly fit onto Broken Dreams Club. Like that release’s self-titled track, the percussive shuffle and strong guitar twang are immediate from the get-go. A shrill twang is introduced at the end of each chorus, which initially touts just a distorted rhythm guitar but later expands into organ accompaniments and more varied guitar leads. Just as great as any effort on Broken Dreams Club, “My Ma” is a perfect representation of Girls’ evolution into two cohesively intersecting deliveries: power-pop and southern-rock, which is flexible enough in their sense to include the likes of soul and country-pop. In Girls’ rare instances of indecisiveness, the meandering “Just a Song” and “Love Life” both seem stuck in limbo somewhere between the successful ambition of “Vomit” and instant power-pop appeal of “Magic” or “Saying I Love You”. “Love Life” is a pleasant enough ode to ‘60s pop, filled with the airy key tremolos that remain staples in stylistic odes like John Lennon’s “Woman” and Richard Hawley’s “Hotel Room”. Its repetitive and clumsy progression gets tiring very quickly though, along with its gimmick of adding a new accompaniment with each halted verse. It makes such comparisons only accurate in the sense of how it feels, not in its lasting impact on the listener.
For the most part, Father, Son, Holy Ghost is an exceptional album from one of the most promising pop songwriters in the business. Girls evolved last year with Broken Dreams Club, and their new full-length explores several of its stylistic devices. As a result, Father isn’t a groundbreaking career-changer. It doesn’t matter though; the variation between wonderfully infectious power-pop gems and ambitious guitar-driven experimentations in soul is beautifully managed on the album. There are no leaps required of Girls at this point, only an ongoing effort to organize their wide range of ideas. Father, Son, Holy Ghost features the most fascinating cast of songs yet, all presented with stunning cohesion. It’s yet another accomplishment for this San Francisco collective.