Los Angeles, CA
The first song I heard from Christopher Owens and his band Girls was “Lust for Life,” a perfect poppy bounce of a song; a snappy thing that rode a simple, shimmering guitar line through a breezy street tour, complete with car-ready backing vocals and a brief melodica solo. In all of that sun-baked glory and limitless youth, Owens described his personal failings in short but telling details and managed to cram a whole scene’s worth of character into a song. The picture was completed with an accompanying video, which featured a cast of primarily female San Franciscans singing and shimmying and soaking up as much sun as there was. I knew nothing else about this band or anyone involved, but I knew that I wanted all of it.
My next taste was the slow descent into waste and depression, the used napkin of a ballad “Hellhole Ratrace.” Despite similarly sunny instrumentation and dark lyrical concerns, the song served as the direct opposite of the previous single, as far as effect and context. One song was meant to be blasted out of a car stereo, and the next was the late night/early morning meditation over the last smoke in the pack and bottle from the fridge.
Before the proper record release, I caught Girls on tour with Smith Westerns, armed only with the knowledge of those two singles. While Smith Westerns thoroughly delivered as the main act, Girls provided a memorable, if not incredibly engaging, opening set. My concert going companion, one of my closest musical confidantes, remarked that every song sounded good, but almost exactly the same as the one before. The wide diversity of musical styles that I had expected was distilled down into a lightly picked sludge, with every track resembling the slow grind of “Hellhole Ratrace,” even the joyous-on-record “Lust for Life.” At one point in the show, Owens confirmed our suspicions and began strumming the intro to a song, only to stop and say, “Sorry, we played that one already.” We nodded.
Then the album dropped, and that range was back in spades. The generically named Album [True Panther Sounds 2009] took the aforementioned singles as centerpieces and populated the rest of the atmosphere with bleary Beach Boys tributes, thundering and triumphant guitar interludes, simple and sweet ballads, and an extra dash of melted shoegaze for good measure. While many of the reviews focused on Owens’ convoluted backstory, and understandably so (it involves a cult, teenage runaways, and a millionaire’s sponsorship), they missed the most remarkable part: how a man with such a scattered upbringing could make a cohesive piece of art out of the raw fragments of his psyche and some widely divergent musical tastes. Things had been tough for Owens, surely, but it seemed like, with the help of some good old rock and roll, he’d found the right path.
After the fine Broken Dreams Club EP, Girls released Father, Son, Holy Ghost , an album without as much instant gratification as its predecessor, but even more layers of lovingly picked and placed rock and pop touchstones. The clear highlight was the transcendent “Vomit,” an extended jam that starts a lot like “Hellhole Ratrace” and ends with angelic organ bursts and backing choir vocals, something like a mellowed out amalgamation of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” and “Wild Horses.” These classic touches run throughout the record, signaling a calmer road towards whimsical touches of Americana and the kind of straightforward songwriting that they’d only half-committed to on Album. After the tour cycle was over, Owens went on Twitter and announced his departure from the band, citing the ever-elusive “personal reasons.” As quickly as they came, they were gone.
The sudden news came as a surprise to the other permanent member of the band, bassist/producer JR White. When Owens started the project, he was the sole songwriter, and he recruited his close friend White to help out. In the studio, that arrangement organically evolved into White self-producing the record, as well as the two subsequent releases. It was clear that Owens was the creative spark behind the work, but White’s contributions to the instrumentation and clean sheen of the recordings was certainly significant. They were a band of brothers, and over time, that musical bond eroded with the increasing demands of fame, expectation, and personal issues. While Owens still remains quiet on the specifics, somehow that collaborative magic dissipated, and the project was put to rest.
After his departure, Owens released two records in quick succession, the pleasant if disappointing Lysandre and A New Testament. One year later and he’s returned with Chrissybaby Forever, easily his strongest work since Girls. An unassuming series of songs written in the same vein of his earlier discography, Chrissybaby Forever features all of the sunny guitar strums, crooning vocals, jangly percussion, and slide guitar accents you’ve come to expect from a Christopher Owens release. Despite the strength of some individual tracks like the summer breeze of a song “Me Oh My” and the “Vomit” on Vicodin ballad, “When You Say I Love You,” the album as a whole walks right up the line of being a fine and complete work, but it just feels like something’s missing.
Maybe it’s a lack of urgency, that the lyricist and creative mind has already sponged out the most significant bits and now he’s coasting on an aesthetic. His lyrics used to be full of telling little details and wider reaching platitudes, but now it feels like he’s leaning solely on the latter. Maybe it’s the absence of JR White, who provided a necessary creative co-conspirator to refine and embellish the raw ideas. Owens is clearly still a gifted songwriter and talented musician, and there’s plenty of time in his career to find more inspiration in his recorded material and other musicians to help bring his vision to life. At the very least, he puts on quite the live show.
With the same musical confidante that accompanied me six years earlier, I caught Christopher Owens and his new band at The Echo in Los Angeles. I wasn’t properly prepared for the evening, as the excitement of playoff basketball caught me off guard, but my host graciously supplied me with a few pages of paper on which I could scrawl my in-concert observations and musings. After balance had been restored with the righteous triumphing over evil, as the Golden State Warriors took Game 1 from the Cleveland Cavaliers, we made our way to the venue and slipped in just before the second act.
Soon enough, Christopher Owens and his band took the stage and dove right into two cuts from the Broken Dreams Club EP. It was a good portent for the rest of the evening, as the set, while primarily culled from Chrissybaby Forever, had generous smatterings of his previous band’s work scattered throughout. I wasn’t sure if he’d go back, and I was glad that he did. With a tight group of musicians clearly accustomed to each other’s company and a resonating twang that caked every song, they effortlessly bled the catalogs together into a gently stirring series of songs that all, sort of, ended up sounding the same. You couldn’t fault any of the performers, and maybe it was history clouding my perception, but I just couldn’t shake the sensation that every sound seemed recycled from the track just completed.
Part of the problem is the frontman’s almost absent stage presence, especially his tendency to stand sideways, facing the wall, and keep his head down low to the mic. There was no attempt at banter, apart from a stray “Thanks” or two;, no extra emotional sells to the climax of a song, no real life at all, apart from his effortless croon and nimble guitar-picking. To his credit, his chops are strong enough to fully capture you, his energy magnetic enough to draw you in, despite his physical and emotional barriers. He’s a stark reminder of both the power and the limitations of the tortured artist.
None of this should come as a surprise given his addiction-filled lyrics and sometimes frightening candor in interviews, but it’s easy to hide behind a piece of art and pretend that no one really made it, that somehow this miraculous thing just turned up. Maybe it’s partly a defense mechanism, a hope that this work suddenly appeared instead of being forcefully wrought, perhaps painfully, out of a human being.
Enough of the faux psychoanalysis; back to the show.
The strongest songs of the night were, unsurprisingly, from the Girls albums, whether it was a heavy take on “God Damned” that replaced the jangle with thunder, or an even more psychedelic “Summertime” that layered in overlapping waves of tremolo and fuzz. At his best, Owens can conjure something close to the magic of the Velvet Underground, a winning combination of well-learned and ingrained melody, honest and desperate lyricism, and distorting dips into weirdness and noise. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it’s certainly worth catching a show for a glimpse or two.
We left The Echo with a strengthened opinion of Owens the performer and his new material, along with the nagging sensation that he skirts just close enough to greatness that perhaps he needs someone to push him back to the right side of the edge. We’re not talking about the second incarnation of Lou Reed or anything, but based on the strength of his early work and his still evident talent, you know that something more lurks beneath those almost too simplistic melodies and arrangements.
Maybe he needs to work with JR White again, or maybe he’ll find his way on his own. Either way, I’ve seen enough to know that I’ll keep watching, with the hope that he rights course and produces another singular piece of music.