Live: Girls Have Their Moment at the Bowery Ballroom
Friday, November 6
Cobain sweater. Check. Blonde, shoulder-length tangle. Check. "Let's all just have a good time," Girls' front man Christopher Owens said as he settled at the center of the stage at Bowery Ballroom. He said it flatly, no rocker pose or impishness. Like, you know, let's all just have a good time. It's the sort of phrase that might pop up in one of his songs--straightforward, hopeful, deceptively innocent. On Friday, Owens and bandmate J.R. White, along with touring drummer Garret Godard and guitarist Ryan Lynch, played nearly all of those songs. They did so before a crowded house, with the sort of calmness and restraint that belied the hysteria surrounding the band's first New York show since garnering a frenzy of acclaim for their debut, Album. Just another day in the sunshine for the San Francisco band.
But then, this wouldn't appear to be that big a deal for Owens, having already had his biography (raised in a cult; nurtured out of gutter punk-dom by a Texas millionaire; heart torn asunder time and again) slopped around in reviews and features for the last few months. At the Bowery, his backstory didn't matter much. He sang his songs a bit raggedly, a bit coquettish, with a languid, sort of sensual body rock. During the plaintive opener (they're all plaintive, really), "Ghostmouth," Owens dropped to a crouch, almost ducking into the melody in time. He did this over and over again, sometimes to squeals, but mostly to a quiet crowd--not subdued, just paying attention. During "Laura," heads perked up and sang along. "I really wanna be your friend forever," Owens sang, gleaming a little and looking distinctly happy. Is this a dream come true? Probably.
During opener Real Estate's set, Owens shuffled out to daintily play tambourine on the band's "Basement," from their forthcoming Mexican Summer 12", but it was easy to ignore him. Real Estate don't have Owens' curriculum vitae (they're from New Jersey) or way with pop songs, but they make a terrific smear on record. Their self-titled debut, out next week on Woodsist, is a lush, pastoral cycle, vocals seemingly recorded in a bathtub, guitars set to stun. Live they had more heft and proved they're better than a dippy lo-fi runner-up. "Green River" became a battering ram out there thanks to drummer Etienne Duguay, and "Pool Swimmers" turned into a hazy collapse. Closer "Beach Comber"--the best thing they've written--felt like a perfect bridge to Girls. "What you want you is just outside your reach, keep on searching," Martin Courtney sang, as matter of fact and heartbreaking as anything on Album.
The oncoming (or is it going already?) Girls backlash is as plain as day and not that hard to muster--these are songs that lack metaphor or simile, an almost impossible feat in pop music. Love is like...something, right? It takes more effort to deny the cynicism. During the driving, Everly Brothers-esque honky tonk of "Darling," Owens sang, "I found it all in a song / yeah yeah yeah / it's coming straight from my heart." That's a lyric that, on paper, doesn't appear to be much--hackneyed and maybe stupid. But in a life spent striving for talking points, Owens seems uniquely disengaged from anything but himself.
It feels like a rock star thing: he has it. "Lust For Life" and "Hellhole Ratrace"--the nominal "hits" from Album--were perfectly divergent, the former a rave-up gone goofy and the latter an endless dirge-cum-lighter-flipper. "That Smell" followed by "Freebird," basically. Girls encored with the melodramatic "Lauren Marie." During the song, Owens gently transitioned into Daniel Johnston's "True Love Will Find You In The End," a head-slappingly obvious precursor and a tender conclusion. This band's act may not play the second time around. For now, the future doesn't matter.