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All hail 'Holy Ghost'
on September 13, 2011
The name of this San Francisco band pretty much consolidates every traditional pop song down to its root cause.
The band takes pop roots and branches them out, sometimes elevating them to heavy-metal heights and acid-rock lengths, as on the sprawling "Die," which contains the lines, giddily voiced, "None of us is gonna be just fine / No, we're all going straight to hell tonight."
At other times, band mates Christopher Owens and JR White (with three new members added for Girls' second release) settle into hypnotic, lo-fi splendor, as on the sunny, yet shady "Alex," with lead singer Owens mumbling his lines in a drug-addled manner. Or the down-tempo, blues-rocker "How Can I Say I Love You," with its bittersweet message, "How can I say I need you? ... how can I say I want you? ... now that you've said everything I said to you / To somebody new?"
To be sure, "Father, Son, Holy Ghost," so named to illustrate the spiritual kinship Girls feels toward music, employs a variety of moods.
The album kicks off with the psych-surf "Honey Bunny," bouncy and strange like Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. The roiling, rollicking "Vomit" moves from ominous to dewy-eyed in the space of a few minutes. The bulk of the songs are backed by a three-piece gospel choir, a key ingredient that unifies the frantic mix.
Toward the end is the album's shining highlight, "Forgiveness," a slow-cooker about letting go of deep grudges before they tear you apart, with its woozy keys, crisp acoustic guitar and bellowing bass drum. A bleary Owens croaks, "No one's gonna find any answers / If you're just trying to hide / From the things you know inside / Are the truth," the eight-minute spectacle eventually boiling over into a fury of white-hot licks and percussive thunder.
There is definitely something magic going on here (and not just the track called "Magic"). "Holy Ghost" is an adventure inside a rock 'n' roll Bizarro World. It feels as if this is music that's been put to wax before -- there's that deja-vu tingle -- but the riffs and melodies are slightly off balance, like a chair at the local coffee shop. The tightly wound, gritty, almost claustrophobic sensation that permeates "Holy Ghost" comes from Girls' intentional choice to record it in a small, concrete studio in the heart of the Tenderloin.
That decision in itself may be a bit of nostalgia for Owens, a one-time member of the Children of God (now scarily rebranded as the less conspicuous Family International), who lived on the streets of San Francisco for a time after leaving the religious cult at the age of 16. Owens is graced with an unsuspectingly powerful voice. It creeps along for a while, but by the fourth song, he opens up and takes charge. Owens is particularly affecting on "My Ma," a feverish ode to his lost childhood, and a family with which he now must be completely at odds. His voice cracks with raw emotion as he sings, "Oh God, I'm tired / And my heart is broken / It's so hard to feel so all alone / And so far, so far away from home."
"Holy Ghost" is a weighty, existential affair. As such, it will never translate to the fresh-faced, overly overt, Day-Glo dance floor that is today's pop landscape. But for those who prefer meals, not snacks, "Holy Ghost" is the kind of album that gently gets under your skin and stays there. It's easily one of the most original releases of the year.