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Dance the pain away with Girls: Indie crew brings heartbreak and hooks to the Paramount

by Claudia Mak / Beacon Correspondent • September 28, 2011

, Beacon Correspondent

Most people probably don’t jump at the chance to listen to someone complain about their failed relationships. But somehow, San Francisco band Girls manage to avoid the melodrama and make heartbreak irresistible. The group will bring their lovelorn indie pop to Emerson when they hit the Paramount Theater Mainstage on Sept. 24.

Frontman Christopher Owens hasn’t had the easiest life: He grew up in the Children of God cult, a group of Christian extremists that believe in little to no exposure to the outside world — including secular music. But Owens found ways around those rules. He told FAQmagazine.org that a group of rebellious teens in his cult recorded artists like Bon Jovi, Guns N’ Roses, and Michael Jackson on cassette tapes from the radio to pass on to him.  Owens said he was transfixed by the foreign-sounding music.

After fleeing the cult at age 16, he moved first to Texas, and ultimately to San Francisco. While in California, he befriended bassist Chet “JR” White, and together they became Girls.

“I went to school for recording and engineering and I had recording equipment to do that,” White said in a phone interview.  “So [Owens] started asking me questions about how to record himself.”

The collaboration, with Owens handling songwriting duties and White in the producer’s chair, seemed to work right away. “At some point, after finishing a couple songs, I was like, ‘Well, I want to be in this band.’”

In 2009, Girls released their first album, emAlbum/em (True Panther Sounds), which garnered critical acclaim and created a sizable blip on the indie rock radar — the LP was number 10 on Pitchfork’s Top 50 Albums of 2009 list and hit number three on Billboard’s Top Heatseekers chart.

The band kept the hype going in 2010 with the emBroken Dreams Club/em EP, racking up a second appearance on Pitchfork’s year-end list. This year they added two new members — brothers Darren and Evan Weiss — and dropped a second, similarly lauded full-length album, emFather, Son, Holy Ghost/em on Sept. 13.

White said that the name emFather, Son, Holy Ghost/em isn’t a direct reference to Christianity, despite Owens’ religious upbringing.

“The name might’ve came from there, but its not about that,” he said. Instead, it has to do with the relationship between spirituality and music — a connection that’s different for everyone. “It’s kind of better to let it up to everyone to try and figure it out.”

A listen to this album may not substitute a Sunday Mass, but it does have an immediate spiritual quality about it.  “Love Like A River” stars off like a rock ballad until a trio of back-up singers, which makes several appearances on the album, begins to belt out gospel-soul harmonies.

Owens’ voice is the icing on the sun-pop cake — he waxes lyrically about love, lack-there-of, and the myriad of problems he has with, well, girls, in his characteristically lazy whine.

His melancholy, at times, is almost obscured by shiny licks and upbeat rhythms. It’s the sweetest, though, in the songs when he breaks that barrier, like album opener “Honey Bunny.”  The track is filled with surfer-rock guitar riffs, while the lyrics that reflect the recurring theme of hopeless romanticism and Owens’ number one enemy: the girls that break his heart.

“I’ve been messing with so many girls who could give a damn about who I am/They don’t like my bony body, they don’t like my dirty hair,” Owens croons.

“I think songwriting is a therapeutic thing for Christopher,” said White. “I think when he writes about himself he does like to twist it in the end to make it positive, because the song writing is such a reflection of himself... He’s communicating with himself a lot of the time.”

This second full-length album shows Girls growing not just emotionally, but sonically. The group sought out a studio that would set emFather, Son, Holy Ghost/em apart from what it had done before. They found it in a concrete basement in San Francisco.

“It had an unavoidable sound — even if we tried to calm it down — because it was a very live-sounding room,” White said. The basement studio also boasted a huge collection of recording equipment and guitars, which White said he was thrilled to tinker with.

That unavoidable sound is most obvious when Girls reins in the tempo for the total catharsis of “Vomit.”  The album’s centerpiece and lead single, it begins with slow whimper, gradually rising into an all-out rock ’n’ roll gospel by the end. The painful and liberating exercise sums up Girls by dolling out Owens’ conflicting feelings in all the right doses.

strongGirls play the Paramount Theater  Mainstage on Saturday, September 24 at 8 p.m. Tickets are available for $20 at Artsemerson.org./strong

emClaudia Mak can be reached at claudia_mak@emerson.edu./em