Girls, Girls, Girls

Pub date September 10, 2008
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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On Feb. 15, the auspicious day after Valentine’s, Café Du Nord hosted Girls’ debut — a perfect night to showcase their music, which is full of heartache and romantic longing. I witnessed the birth of a pop sensation that night. I’ve never seen San Francisco rock kids so unhinged for a band that had never previously played out — they sang, in a state of unrestrained fervor, along with songs only available online.

Those of us giddy in the crowd that night haven’t been alone in feeling it. In three months, the SF outfit sold out all 500 copies of their recently released single on True Panther. In fact, 200 of those records were sold on pre-order, and the group has received notice on Pitchfork and various blogs and in Spin magazine.

The rapid and rapturous reception would turn anyone’s head. But the boys of Girls — JR White on bass, Christopher Owens on guitar and vocals, and an otherwise rotating lineup — are wary of overly speedy success. When I sat down with White and Owens at the Ferry Building last week, I asked White why he thinks listeners respond so keenly to their songs. "I think they’re honest," he replied. "It’s the first thing I noticed, and it’s the first thing a lot of people say." Girls’ music, he added, "lacks the pretension in a lot of pop music."

Girls emerged from a living-room recording project that Owens brought White, a recording engineer. Excited by Owens’ music, White suggested they form a band. A musician since age 15, the bassist confesses that this is the first time he feels no ambivalence about playing in a group. According to White, the project evolved as if by "divine intervention — a gift from everything that’s happened in your life."

I possess a reflexive Gen X cynicism and would normally respond to such an avowal with skepticism. However, there’s nothing contrived about Girls’ sincerity. In fact, the similarly charming Owens owned that descriptor, claiming, "Essentially I am just really an earnest, sincere person.

"I came to the realization at the last show that we would probably be the easiest band to make fun of," he continued. "You could read the lyrics and just mock it. So I feel super-vulnerable. I don’t think we get up there and right away, people are saying, ‘Yeah, this is the best thing ever.’ We kind of have to win them over, but it’s kind of a cool thing to go through from the beginning of the show to the end of the show. Every show has kind of been excruciating to play. The end is great."

In any case, Girls’ lyrical earnestness was treated to a skilled studio work-over on their recordings — a full-length is due this fall on True Panther. The songs shine with brilliant arrangements that layer echoed vocals and reverbed guitars. The touchstones for such massive sound swirls are Spiritualized and various shoegazer outfits, but Girls can’t be pigeonholed as a strictly genre band. For one thing, White rarely buries the vocals at the back of the mix, so we hear Owens’ supple voice upfront, albeit through the pleasant gauze of lo-fi tape hiss. They also have written several dazzling three-minute-or-so pop songs, brightly realized with major chords and handclaps.

According to a commenter on Girls’ MySpace page, the band’s music smells like summer. Laugh or no, it’s true. Their sound resembles all the parts of the season: the bright happy mornings, the long gorgeous days, the nostalgic end-of. "Morning Light" evokes that perfect buzz after a great night out and the walk home on a summer dawn. "Hellhole Rat Race" resembles the summer waxing in September, dusty and wistful. "Lust for Life" gives off the whiff of a perfect pop song: you’re cruising in a car maybe to the beach, in search of beers for breakfast, and your friends are all around.

I don’t know why this music triggers synesthesia in me. I suspect it’s because these gorgeous numbers make my skin literally tingle. The tunes are so classic and pure, yet churn so massively, and the language is so full of want. It’s an imperfect world, and boys and girls do each other harm. But, hey, sometimes a song can be your salvation.


With Master/Slave and Ty Segall

Fri/12, 9:30 p.m., $7

Hemlock Tavern

1131 Polk, SF