Girls' debut threads 60s pop and rock inflections through more recent and more varied acts, but its greatness lies in the band's bold tonal and structural flights of fancy. The San Francisco band's sound, helmed by Christopher Owens and JR White, is accompanied by lyrics ideal in the context of summer, a season now shed but still pined for. On the opener, "Lust For Life," Owens dreams his dreams, with backward glances at a fatherless childhood and forward glances at symbolically void-filling accoutrements: "How I wish I had a sun tan / I wish I had a pizza / and a bottle of wine / I wish I had a beach house / then we could make a big fire / every night." Then, an affecting twist of a resignation: "Instead I'm just crazy / I'm totally mad / Yeah I'm crazy / I'm fucked in the head."
The gorgeous, sparkly-knitted guitars that Girls employs on standout tracks like "Hellhole Ratrace" and "Morning Light" could drown, or at least muddle, the lyrics. But from the first track onward, the band establishes the importance of lyrical declarations like the wish list of "Lust For Life," which loads emotional weight—"lust" is not love, and the "life" is an imaginary someone else's—onto the song's trite title. The music is often so tentative, yet artfully so, as to be a sheer veil over the words, which even at their poppiest can sometimes turn a phrase like a knife in a wound.
"Hellhole Ratrace," placed in a key slot, track six, is likely the album's best, its lyrics chiefly comprised of a chorus repeated dozens of times: "And I don't wanna cry / my whole life through / I wanna do some laughing too / Some come on, come on, come on, come on / and laugh with me / And I don't wanna die / without shaking up a leg or two / I wanna do some dancing too / So come on, come on, come on, come on / and dance with me." More than six minutes long, the song climaxes as drums, handclaps and an electric guitar, soaring through a cadenza-like countermelody, are piled onto the light strums of an acoustic guitar and some tambourine shakes. The fact that the same words are on a loop goes unnoticed; clearly, they can't be said enough.
Occasionally, there are sluggish pop ballads, like "Darling," the final track, and "Laura," with a rhythm and melody as dull and sad as the premise ("I don't wanna fight anymore"). On this track, Owens' voice loses its rusty uniqueness and sounds like more of a whine, though it's a fitting tone for a desperate lover on the last legs of a relationship. "Darling" at least showcases the pretty, trebly solo expressions of the electric guitar.
The sounds called up on Album produce many historical echoes. At the beginning of "Ratrace," Owens sounds uncannily like Elvis Costello, and Bacharach comes through on the languid "Headache," where all of the band's abrasive inflections are wiped clean: Owens sings round, breathy notes that serve as a kind of air conditioning for the dizzying island heat the instruments create. The song, finally, is a little momentan idea of a song, but it pairs nicely with "Curls," another atmospheric but heavier track (and an ode to its namesake, Owens' previous band) that comes and goes in two minutes and could easily show up in one of the happier scenes of Zabriskie Point.
The trouble is, the album's stunners, particularly "Lauren Marie" and the Jesus and Mary Chain send-up "Morning Light," can really overshadow these pop numbers, or, to put it more optimistically, "Lauren Marie," "Morning Light," and "Hellhole Ratrace" take the tones and tricks of each of Album's other songs and renders them in bold, outline, and italics, sometimes all at once. But it's never gaudy. The album's bite-sized breakup ballads, worthy of the Ready Steady Go! audience, alternate with atmosphere-heavy studies of surfer rock and glimpses of British rock influences, particularly the Kinks, and more recent groups, including Ariel Pink and Shooting Spires. But it's when things get loud and—brilliantly on "Morning Light"—a little messy that Girls begin to really chart the expanse of their talent, putting down stakes that ought to be driven deeper as their career ages. - liz colville