Girls (Real Estate)
El Mocambo. Tuesday, November 10, 2009.
Another Tuesday night, another trip to the El Mo to check out an out-of-town band riding on some buzz and good press. Like the last time I was in this situation, I was here as a rubbernecking spectator with no strong opinion going in, not having heard any music by either of the bands on the bill. For a show that I decided to attend fairly casually, it turned out to be rather a hot ticket, a sign reading "100% SOLD OUT" at the door.
Not quite looking sold out as I arrived a little bit before openers Real Estate took the stage. Lots of room to grab a spot in front of the stage and check out the Jersey-based four-piece, fronted by Martin Courtney, wearing a cardigan and looking a bit like the guy who got kicked out of the math club for having drugs in his locker. The band featured a melodic two-guitar sound, featuring both swirling textures and ringing chords on top. Although at a few points their sound also might be encapsulated as "we've got a flanger and we're gonna use it", the haze of that — and no shortage of reverb — never overpowered the songs. The music brought to mind the more psychedelic end of the classic Flying Nun bands, as well as some of Real Estate's compatriots on the Woodsist label, who happen to be on a pretty hot streak right now. And keeping things from getting too heavy, the band mixed in a couple surf-y instrumentals1 that still managed to fit it squarely with the other numbers. I found myself sucked in at the start and rather enraptured by the end — excellent stuff. This is why it's worth showing up for the opening band — despite all the duds and bores, every once in a while, you get to hear something fabulous. Keep your eye out for this lot: with their debut album just out, they already have a follow-up EP on the way. With that much to say, hopefully they'll make it back 'round to these parts sooner rather than later.
Listen to a track from this set here.
Immediately as Real Estate ended, there was a sudden suction-like burst of movement towards the stage, the relative spaciousness in front of quickly filled with the folks who had been arriving while the openers were on. I didn't want to get too squeezed in and let the crowd build up in front of me — obviously the bulk of the people here were more psyched up to see Girls than I was. The project of Christopher Owens — a young man with a tabloid-worthy personal backstory — was here at what might be the hight of his buzz bubble, with significant online plaudits making his debut album (titled, with the same generic consideration given to the band's name, Album) a big deal du moment.
Backed by a basic guit-bass-drums trio and accompanying himself on guitar, the band had a stripped-down sensibility that it applied to some wonderful old rock'n'roll chords borrowed from some of the canon's immortal tunes. Whether this band would be up to putting new wine in these old bottles, though, was no sure thing. Sounding like they had just started playing together (which, it turns out, was the case) the band was tentative and not particularly strong. The musical problems cascaded into a telling lack of stage presence, as at any given moment, all three players up front were usually looking down at their hands, even in the midst of the most straightforward strumming. Owens' frontman presence certainly hasn't yet caught up to his current level of fame, and the spaces between songs were often filled with silence as he tuned his guitar.
The band started off relatively strongly, with "Ghost Mouth" and "Laura" but couldn't really maintain any sort of consistent groove. Let it be noted, mind you, that I was in the minority here — the bulk of the student-y looking crowd were eating this stuff up. "Hellhole Ratrace" came with an insistently ringing guitar part that brought the retro-minded Scots in Glasvegas to mind — but such a comparison also serves to underline the sort of swagger that Girls is without, instead approaching the song with a wounded vulnerability. It then segued into "Morning Light" in as much of a guitar maelstrom as these musicians could muster, a big hit with the crowd.
All told, there was an interesting sort of revivalism in Girls' music playing itself out simultaneously on two tracks: not just the original rock'n'roll/Brill Building/Goffin-King sort of undercarriage, but also simultaneously an 80's Brit vision that looked back on some of those same sources (say, The Cure or Aztec Cameras). "Oh Boy!", a quiet b-side from the album that was played to lead off the encore was fairly winning, but again, just how exciting one might find it is inversely proportional to how many times you've heard that progression before. The real test for Owens will be how much he can transcend musical pastiche and generic lyrical sentiments.
My reaction isn't merely "the emperor has no clothes" — everyone borrows, and Owens is borrowing from some solid sources. He has a decently emotive voice. It's not like there's nothing there. But for my money, it's a bit too much, too soon. Real Estate were the achievers on this night, and it was their CD that I stopped to buy on my way out. Whether Owens gets a fair chance to grow into his talents, however ample they may be, before he's tossed aside for the next dreamy lad with a catchy tune and a backstory remains to be seen.
Listen to a track from this set here.
1 One of which was, despite the title "Atlantic City", not a cover.