If a cursory glance of Pitchfork’s “one-record-you’ve-heard-of-a-week” album review archive makes you shake your head, convinced that you just don’t get indie music anymore, you’re within your rights; if only something could come along, make you feel, transport you back to a bygone era. Something like that.
Enter Girls. Their 2009 debut album Album seemed to often be a case of “I know I like this because several tastemaking critics have told me so” – far from bad, but often sort of fetal, as though their promising sound had some growing to do before it came viable and able to sustain itself. But there were some interesting pop hooks lurking in the lo-fi, retro haze, and that seemed to be the direction Girls needed to take to become more interesting. With Father, Son, Holy Ghost, Girls haven’t simply become more interesting – there’s a small chance that they just made the best “indie” album of the year.
“Honey Bunny”, a galloping Brian Wilson beach volleyball session set to music, states the album’s case straightaway – melody, that curious concept whose footsteps dots the shore where a thousand bad indie albums washed up and died trying to chase it, is something that the newly-revitalized Girls have a firm grasp on, and by marrying a Beach Boys singalong to a stomping Elvis Costello beat, Girls reintroduce themselves as capable of smashing fun. And, like the best pop records, Father, Son, Holy Ghost is, secretly heartbroken, at least at times – but earworm melodies, shimmering harmonies, and rollicking instrumentals all conspire to make the heartbreak sound remarkably vital, even catchy. (Why, hello, Elvis Costello. Here’s your book of tricks back.)
Fortunately, Girls don’t have just one trick up their collective sleeve – Brian Wilson homages litter their landscape on Father, Son, Holy Ghost, yeah, and Girls are defiantly retro, but sunny beach-pop isn’t necessarily the order of the day. Pink Floyd’s long, spacey outros often rear their heads; “Die” quits being a blistering hard-rocker halfway through and gives in to soaring slide guitar and a pretty mellotron, kinda like “Layla”. The wistful, sad “Just A Song” starts out like a Fleetwood Mac composition before turning into early Iron & Wine, complete with uncomfortable intimacy and a subtle break in lead Girl Christopher Owens’ vocals. And that’s to say nothing of “Vomit”, the sort of outer-space epic that died with vintage Floyd, resplendent with otherworldly guitars and soaring gospel background vocals (shades of Merry Clayton’s “Gimme Shelter” work, come to think of it); the song itself is nice, without being an exercise in studio trickery. It earns its vivid decoration instead of requiring it.
An exercise in sheer quality songcraft, Father, Son, Holy Ghost hones every reason Girls were first promising two years ago. These are songs that bleed feeling, songs that go in every direction you want them to. Owens and company have turned in exemplary work; there’s hooks for days on Holy Ghost, and feeling to spare. And it’s one of the best records of the year.