Despite my last post on the sorry state of music television today, I spent my weekend surprisingly entertained and fulfilled by that very thing (or, at least, its Internet approximation). Hipster music behemoth Pitchfork answered my prayers by livestreaming their annual 3-day festival from Chicago. While there were quite a few bands I was indifferent to, I was pretty thrilled to see the likes of The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (fresh from their Pittsburgh show, which I attended) and Girls up close and personal, far from Union Park’s 90-degree temperatures. The only flaw in the broadcast was that Sunday night’s final show, a reunited Pavement, did not stream as advertised, sparking the ire of many indie rock fans (myself included) who planned their Sundays in anticipation. As it turns out, we didn’t miss much. Though I would’ve preferred to watch the festival on my TV screen (and I know I could have with the right set up), it was great to be able to watch the festival online. While I’ve watched the occasional youtube concert bootleg, it was a treat to see a festival professionally shot, capturing the mood of the crowd and the sweat of the performers.
And now for a digression unrelated to television. One performance I really looked forward to was Girls, the sun-soaked Cali project of Christopher Owens and JR White. 2009’s shimmering, simmering Album combined 60’s-style hooks with an intense shoegaze buzz. When I caught them live in April, their sound translated effortlessly, guitars building to a deafening hiss as Owens stood meekly at the mike, rocking a tangled mass of hair flipped over a deep side part. Owens always seemed to me somewhat off-kilter as a frontman: oversized 90s clothes (with the occasional zany baseball cap) and a vocal delivery that walks the line between innocence and a self-mocking, pseudo-toughness. After the show, I looked up Owens and discovered that he spent his first 16 years traveling Europe as a prisoner of the Children of God cult (of River/Joaquin Phoenix fame), playing “safe” music like the Everly Brothers on street corners for money and clinging to bootleg Michael Jackson tapes as proof an outside world existed. So how’s that for a goddamn backstory?
A full interview from FAQ Magazine is here, and shares fascinating tidbits involving Owens’s early cult-free days in Amarillo, TX, working invisible jobs like overnight stocking and dishwashing, desperately clinging to the local punk scene as a lifeline. Needless to say, it confirms his status as weirdest guy in the room. And here I thought he was just on drugs! It’s true that an interesting biography does not a good musician make. Owens’s natural talent and pure passion for music shine through on Album, but what could easily be dismissed as a bunch of throwback love songs just makes so much more sense if you know where Owens is coming from.
One of the great rock ‘n roll themes of all is longing. Longing for the girl, the recognition, the lost youth. Springsteen build a career on longing, but the dingy confines of Asbury Park have got nothing on the Children of God. Christopher Owens knows real longing, and it comes through on Album, both in the lyrics and the sound–that repetition, those guitars crying out, louder and louder still. There are few traditional love songs on this record. The opening track “Lust for Life” is an anthem of longing, written by someone who has a vague idea of what’s out there to make life worth living. A boyfriend. A father. A pizza. A beach house. Owens ticks down the list of what makes people happy and normal, lamenting “But now I’m just crazy/and fucked in the head.” “Laura” is about lost friendship and “Big Bad Mean Motherfucker” seems like a nod to his days emulating punk rock heros, trying desperately to be someone new.
The record’s opus is “Hellhole Ratrace,” a song that seems to directly reference Owens’s upbringing and subsequent purgatory in Amarillo. The song centers on a few lines: “I don’t want to cry my whole life through/I want to do some laughing too/So c’mon and laugh with me” and “Sometimes you’ve just got to make it for yourself/but sometimes, honey, you just need someone else.” These lyrics repeat over and over until the song kicks into overdrive and the messy, buzzing guitars stifle the delicate vocals. Owens may be an unusual person, but his sentiment here is universal: the sense that we all want to be out there, living life the best way we can, and we’re all trying to reach out and get what we want before it’s too late.
Girls’ performance at Pitchfork was nothing that would blow anyone’s mind: delicate melodies, some incredibly loud noise, and a lead singer clad in what can only be described as something Judith Light probably wore on a Hawaiian themed episode of Who’s the Boss. But Owens has crafted an immensely personal record that, despite being a year old, is a worthy soundtrack to a weary, sun-stoned August.