By Jim Schutze
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One of the wonders of modern music is how there are always emerging new artists capable of using the familiar building blocks of chords, melodies and instrumentation to re-imagine old tropes in exciting new ways. To that end, no, San Francisco's Girls hasn't reinvented indie pop; the group simply draws on familiar touchstones. Its sound weaves the sunny melodicism of '60s California pop around shambling, psych-tinged arrangements, and delivers its songs with the bracing forthrightness of inaugural rock icons like Buddy Holly, melding its themes to an emotional innocence and vulnerability reminiscent of Jonathan Richman.
First championed on the blogosphere, the band's debut, Album, quickly caught on with critics and found its way onto plenty of 2009 year's end "best of" lists. Part of the charm here is singer/guitarist Christopher Owens' unaffected style, keenly represented in the album's title. Whether lamenting his insanity and personality drawbacks while imagining a new start on the jangly, handclapping paean "Lust for Life"; luxuriating in his misanthropy on the dreamy, drifting, sleigh bell-abetted psychedelia of the nearly seven-minute "Hellhole Ratrace"; or ambling through the ragged country-folk vibe of "Darling," the beauty of the music and Owens' guileless lyricism conspire for disarming allure.
It's not too tough to conceive of Owens' evocative honesty as being a product of his unusual upbringing. He spent most of his life abroad with his mother in the Children of God cult, until they left their Slovenia home when Owens was 16 and moved to Amarillo, where his older sister lived. He grew up sheltered from most American pop culture. Though he did eventually discover acts like Queen and Guns N' Roses, most of the music he heard as a child came from musicians within the cult and founder-sanctioned '60s pop cassettes, many of which he'd perform in public for donations, helping hone his voice and guitar playing.
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Despite being raised this way, Owens' songwriting partner and bassist, Chet "JR" White, describes him as "more well-adjusted than people that had rich parents and went to college for six years... Coming from his background and coming out of it the way that he did, successfully, made him a much stronger, much more rational person."
White met Owens through some friends, after both had relocated to San Francisco. White had moved from Santa Cruz where he'd been recording a lot of punk acts, but encountered difficulty finding bands to record once in the Bay Area. But when Owens split with his girlfriend Liza Thorn (So So Many White White Tigers) and ended their musical collaboration, White stepped in, anxious to help Owens with his first solo material.
"I helped him buy a four-track," White recalls. "But when I get my hands on recording equipment, I want to do it."
From the beginning, he was struck by Owens' unusual confidence.
"One of the first things he ever said to me when we started recording was I asked, 'What do you want to do with this?' and he's like, 'I want to play on the Super Bowl in three years.'" White says. "But he was dead serious. I'm like, 'Oh, OK.'"
He remembers another incident where Owens said his stuff was as important as Bob Dylan's.
"I'd go home and think about it, and be, 'Whatever, guy,'" White says. "Then I started thinking that people who have those visions of grandeur that are irrational are usually the people that do really well. And I just sort of believed in him and the way he thought about things, and it ended up working out."
Indeed, after the ramshackle recording circumstances of their first release, White's looking forward to a recording budget and working in a real studio. The two have already planned to head into the studio in April. They have six songs ready—they're considering releasing an EP although White admits they might also hold onto them for the next album.
"I think, maybe, it will be a little less ragged and a little more put together," White offers. "Even though our music is based in music that's been around for, like, 100 years—pop music—I have total confidence that we'll always be making interesting, somewhat strange records. That's something we always shoot for, to somehow make it different than everyone else."