The more cynical listeners out there might backhandedly describe Christopher Owens, the creative lynchpin behind Girls, as 'a great student of rock history' - in other words, somebody who knows the canon inside out and lifts from it liberally. And sure, there's no denying that a lot of the ideas here are probably older than Owens himself; that much is clear within the first minute of the album, as "Honey Bunny" bursts out of the traps sounding like a lost early Beach Boys classic with a few Carl Perkins-esque guitar licks thrown in for good measure.
Yet one of the most fascinating things about this album for me is that it very rarely sounds truly retro, or that much like its primarily influences. Instead, it's closer to a raft of other 'great students of rock history' that have appeared in the past two decades - Beulah, Elliott Smith, Oasis, Neutral Milk Hotel, Teenage Fanclub, The Magic Numbers, even Wolfmother on "Die". It's almost as if Girls have made a conscious decision to take those bands on at their own game, to prove that they're better at updating all the ideas from the '60s that indie rock has decided are worth holding onto. It's probably not true, but if it was, they would deserve all the credit in the world, because they've actually succeeded.
The quality of sound and songwriting on Father, Son, Holy Ghost
is frequently breathtaking, and the most telling indicator of that is that, on first listen, even though your natural instinct is to play a game of spot the influence, it becomes impossible; you're too busy marvelling at how good it is. Even "Honey Bunny", probably the album's most blatant throwback, gets over the Beach Boys comparison through its breakneck energy, sheer enthusiasm, and pure melodicism, all of which are more in tune with acts like Dinosaur Jr than anything from the rock'n'roll era.
Elsewhere, the album can be described perfectly by two old adages - the first that stealing from one person is plagiarism while stealing from two or more is just good research, the second that a great song is a great song regardless of its origins. The first is a valid defense of the album but the second is the important one - these are seriously fu
cking great songs. Picking a favourite is nigh-on impossible - the absolutely beautiful "Jamie Marie", the dark and panoramic "Vomit", the wistful "Forgiveness", and the airy "My Ma" are all solid contenders, as is "Honey Bunny". Each song has a tune you can hum, a lyric somebody somewhere will probably get tattooed, and a musical twist to keep repeated listens as enthralling as the first, and what more can you really ask for from a pop or rock album? And that's before we even mention the production, which is little short of perfect - it's spacious, crystal clear, and warm, making this the kind of album that somehow sounds wrong on MP3.
And the music? Brilliant, both instantly familiar and neoteric. The album's sole nuts-out riff fest, "Die", will probably be described as Zeppelinesque by quite a few people, but its riff actually feels more like Wolfmother's "Woman" and Muse's "Knights of Cyndonia" than anything recorded before 2000, and its melody is catchy enough to overshadow the bridge, which hints at Pink Floyd. "My Ma" has a wistfulness that instantly recalls Elliott Smith, but can be traced further back to The Byrds and The Beatles, with a guitar solo that could have been on a Bowie song. "Vomit" takes it listener on an exhausting journey first time out, collapsing out of its atmospheric arpeggios into noisy, scuzzy garage rock, before pulling itself back together for just long enough to escalate into a wave of soulful female vocals and organs that doesn't sound all that much like "The Great Gig in the Sky", but recalls it anyway - oh, and there's room for another guitar solo too, this time with more of a country influence. (And is it just me, or does the melody just carry the tiniest hint of The Cure's "Lovesong" about it?)
And yet for all these half-memories of other songs that Girls conjure, it sounds bang up-to-date. A big part of that is the song structures, which often change up completely half-way through; it's a path that's been well-trodden by the likes of Arcade Fire, Coldplay, and Muse in recent years, but barely anybody has done it as well as Girls do here. Yet a lot of it is a simple matter of energy and, dare I say it, honesty; Owens at his best is a gloriously unrestrained frontman, both in his performance and his writing. There's something really charming about a songwriter that's as happy to include lyrics as silly as 'they don't like my bony body/they don't like my dirty hands' as he is to sing something as sincere as 'maybe I didn't realize the way I loved the way you moved, until you moved so far away I couldn't see you anymore', not to mention a man that's willing to write two openly positive songs about his mother while working in a genre that places more emphasis than most on how cool you act.
One of the best thing about following music is being proven wrong, so I'm happy to say that Father, Son, Holy Ghost
makes me look foolish - despite liking Album
, I never, ever imagined Girls would be anywhere near this good. I didn't even think they'd make it to a third album, if I'm being honest, yet suddenly they sound like they'll probably end up being one of the most enduring bands of our era. I'm always happy to admit that I'm wrong though, as long as I can have albums as brilliant as this in return.