Innocence is a fickle thing. When it’s genuine, it’s easy to admire, look down upon, or even dismiss; when it’s faked, it’s deplorable, pathetic, and a little creepy. San Francisco band Girls’ simply-titled Album reeks of “innocence”—but it’s never really clear whether or not it’s real. Might as well get it out of the way – this “band” (or, rather, duo) has a ridiculous backstory – something about the singer being raised in the Children of God cult, not being allowed to listen to music, then escaping, discovering music, and so forth. It seems almost too ridiculous to be true, and who really knows – either way, it makes for some great press fodder. It could be argued that the enormous amount of hype backing this album is largely due to the appealing nature of their biography, so much so that it becomes hard to separate what the positive buzz is praising – a harrowing story with a happy ending or simply some good music.
Ideally, we would be able to separate the people from the music, but as noble as those intentions are, it isn’t always possible. Musically, these songs reek of someone who has just “discovered” music. That early teenage stage when you listen to mostly classic rock – singer Christopher Owens writes and sounds like he’s permanently stuck in that stage. With a few exceptions, Album sounds like it could have been made in the mid-sixties. It’s got early British Invasion, Rockabilly, and American girl-group pop written all over it; they claimed to have made this album while ingesting every drug they could get their hands on – it doesn’t really come across in the music. It’s not a psychedelic journey nor does it have any particularly interesting production, it’s an album of simple pop songs. Another thing that becomes readily apparent is how voraciously Owens must devour the music he loves; his songs are full of references to legendary musical touchstones. The Pet Sounds style orchestration in “Laura,” the “Be My Baby” loping drumbeat of “Ghost Town” or the My Bloody Valentine-aping “Morning Light,” are all painfully obvious. He even interrupts one of his own songs to slyly sing “Nothing compares to you” in the same lilting cadence as the hit Prince/Sinead O’Connor song.
When music is this obviously derivative, it’s hard to know how to feel about it; on one hand, it’s eminently enjoyable, but on the other hand, it’s just an expert melange of a bunch of better bands and songs. So why do we listen? The lyrics aren’t very good either. Cloying, repetitive, hackneyed; for the unforgiving listener they could be a dealbreaker. The otherwise excellent “Laura” features this dud of a chorus: “I know I’ve made mistakes/But I’m asking you to give me a break/I really wanna be your friend forever,” while the disappointingly tame “Headache” features “Everytime I hear you sing/I love love love you” repeated ad nauseum, to the point where it would make even Paul McCartney queasy. Couple that with the extreme repetition in some of these songs (for example “Hellhole Ratrace” is seven minutes long and features only four different verses, including the chorus) and you’ve got a befuddling album.
But that’s where the innocence issue comes in again – these songs are sung with so much emotion and passion that it’s hard to doubt their authenticity, even if it’s hard to completely accept it. Owens’ vocals are highly nasal, and when he doesn’t sound like a particularly unappealing woman he sounds uncannily like Elvis Costello.
Album jumps all over the place; the almost-orchestral “Laura” and “Ghost Mouth” are obvious highlights, the former featuring gorgeous guitar licks and the latter with irresistibly cute lyrics about a ghost who can’t get to heaven. The more propulsive side of the band shows with the acoustic-driven opener “Lust for Life” (not an Iggy Pop cover), the chunky Doors-blues of closer “Darling,” the excellent acoustic sketch “God Damn” (perhaps the best moment here, lacking any sort of pretension or pomp), and the bizarre “Morning Light,” which sounds remarkably out of place in its precise approximation of shoegaze a la Slowdive. The other tracks are largely unremarkable; “Headache,” “Lauren Marie,” and “Summertime” are tedious ballads that are pretty until you realize that they’re just the same phrase repeated over and over again, the latter saved only by an unexpected break and an agonizingly slow outro. And of course there’s “Hellhole Ratrace,” the song that ‘made’ the band, a 7 minute mantra featuring what sounds like bagpipes and distorted guitars that eventually swallow up the vocals. It’s impressive on first listen but sounds rather amateurish, even next to the admittedly rock-for-beginners feel of some of these songs.
So what’s the verdict? Derivative or not, and repetitive as it is, it’s hard to deny the fact that this album is purely enjoyable – it sounds great on a sunny day, and works almost equally well as an escapist listen on a rainy one. There’s no doubt this band has potential; it sort of sounds like they were so giddy about their own ability to make music that they went out and recorded a bunch of half-finished, poorly fleshed-out songs, so it feels a bit premature to get too excited about them right now. Some will tout it as an amazing debut, others will dismiss it offhand, the rest of us can enjoy it for what it is, an endearingly flawed statement by a promising new band. It’s up to you to decide whether these songs are sung earnestly and without irony, or with a knowing wink – or whether or not it even matters.