If 2009 was the year for girls, maybe 2010 will be a year most remembered for Girls. Weirdo San Francisco duo Chris Owens (pictured, right) and Chet “JR” White (left) aren’t a skinny, blonde girl from new York, or Hampshire for that matter. And thank god for that. The past year may have brought us gems like Florence, but now we’re scraping the barrel with Ellie blooming Goulding, maybe we should call it quits.
Tonight, onstage, the duo set up their equipment so innocuously for a packed, shoulder to shoulder audience, that they could be roadies. They catch me totally by surprise when they begin playing ‘Laura’. It’s a pretty representative of their album, last September’s slab of California surf-pop ‘Album’. It’s a heady mix of young love, Beach Boys melodies and psychedelic, Spiritualized-influenced interludes, delivered by a singer channelling Elvis Costello or Buddy Holly, which is much better for being heard live, as opposed to on their admittedly imperfect debut.
They continue the set with ‘Ghost Mouth’, and as I listen closer, it strikes me how classically American their sound is, so traditional. Lead singer Chris Owen he says he was fed the classics when growing up, Elvis and the Beatles. And you can clearly hear that 50s US sound in there, that Elvis/Orbison axis. The fact that it is done with an arch, weird quality, psychedelic effects (and drugs, fuck yeah, lots of drugs), and punk attitude is what makes it so captivating.
And believe me, the overfilled room is captivated. They stand in silence most of the night, but it’s not the silence of boredom, it’s the silence of rapt attention and even reverence. Even when Girls switch up a gear, as bassist Chet “JR” White suddenly switches up the pedals on his guitar and knocks out a fat, overdriven bassline, and they suddenly turn, momentarily into the Stooges, only a few people start swaying at the front.
Perhaps it’s because skinny, fragile-framed, long haired Christopher Owens is so compelling and sincere as a frontman. So many musicians affect being deep or “tortured” as a badge of sincerity, but with this guy, you absolutely believe it. With his heartfelt blues, fucked up inner life, long blond hair and Oxfam-reject cardigan, he reminds me in many ways of Kurt Cobain tonight. Owens’ life has the makings of an bestselling biography in itself, with his childhood as a member of Californian cult Children Of God, a particularly disturbed group whose hobbies included prostitution, child abuse, and murder. Since absconding at the age of 16, and washing up homeless in Frisco, Owens met his musical partner JR and developed a prescription drugs habit which runs to this day.
For all the sadness in his life, and the heartbreak in the songs, Owens doesn’t come across as a sad person, instead someone in the process of turning things around. As the band encore with a nursery-rhyme style song with the refrain “it all comes back to love”, it’s clear there’s an immensely hopeful quality to his story, and that this band offers a form of personal rebirth. And, as his former cult family might say, amen to that.