Photo courtesy of the extremely talented Anika Mottershaw. (Pictures from the rest of the set here)
Almost exclusively finding, listening and sharing music online can make for some surprisingly jarring effects when dunked into the real world. Outside of the Pitchfork bubble, Girls are a relatively unknown band. Despite performing under the banner of the NME Awards Tour, they don’t manage to sell out the cosy Scala, far from it, and despite the hyperbolic praise lavished upon the band in the past 6 months they’re not quite there yet.
The music lends itself well to its audience. On its own, it’s a sunny California Summer’s day. Cheery choruses full of dorky yearning for girls, la-la refrains thrown in at every opportunity and bright, jangly guitars give the impression that nothing can really and go wrong, and if it does, we’ll try our gosh-darned best to make it right.However, reading about front-man Christopher Owen’s biography makes for sombre reading. Born into the religious ‘Children of God’ cult, one of the many unfortunate fusions of the Hippie counter-culture and American evangelism, his brother died as a baby due to the cult’s views on medical treatment, his father left and his mother was forced into prostitution. To say it puts those sunny melodies in a different perspective and forces you to re-examine those craving lyrics is an understatement. Happy-go-lucky odes to wasted opportunities become somewhat bitter-sweet and bitter-sweet songs about denied love become, well, miserable. The jangly west-coast pop and doo-wop refrains serve as an ironic detachment from reality.
And if there was ever an audience schooled in ironic detachment, it’s this one. Check Shirts, iPhones rather than Blackberrys, unimpressed faces and fringes galore. It’s a fashionable, hip crowd, perhaps a little too so. By the time the band amble out at 9:30 they’re met with warm applause; the crowd are blasé rather than frosty. Girls are unlikely to be anyone’s favourite band at this stage of their career and it’s awkwardly evident after a bumbling start of some of the more nuanced cuts off of Album and a couple of lengthy guitar tuning sessions. Owens himself is an enigmatic front-man but is far from charismatic; he clutches his eyes shut whilst singing, mumbles thanks into the mic obsessively and when he asks the soundboard if the ‘guitars are alright’ for ‘the best song he’s ever written’ he must be aware that the audience is expecting Hellhole Ratface or Lust For Life not a newly penned song about – ‘as all Girls’ songs are – ‘a girl’ with the added twist of her being from ‘the south of France’. The disappointment is almost palpable.
The gig continues to stumble along. One great track is followed by an un-immediate new song and then some awkward silence. The band’s eclecticism and productivity is admirable but they do themselves no favours when it comes to building bridges between them and the audience. Hellhole Ratface is eventually unleashed – the band are far from a one-hit wonder, but this is the song – and though the careful and irresistible instrumental layering on the studio track doesn’t get anywhere near replicated live, and the drummer a little enthusiastic in shunting the song along to its climatic peak with brute force, the refrain is too irresistible for even the hipster with the stoniest of hearts to ignore. The band capitalises with some My Bloody Valentine type guitar feedback wankery and then the very MBV-like Morning Light and the crowd are temporarily won over, some of them even nod their heads.
And then they’re gone. Fifty minutes in and they leave the stage. The encore comes, obviously, and we’re treated to a neat summation of the entire gig itself. The driving jangle of the band’s ‘other’ song, Lust For Life, which is soon counterbalanced with another underwritten b-side, ‘Life in San Francisco’. It’s a frustrating, underwhelming finish to a gig that was almost there so many times but just fell short.
Understandable though it may be that the band has only one album and a handful of b-sides and non-album tracks to play with, it’s a workman-like setlist that fails to take into account the relative benefits of their small discography and it’s a workman-like performance.
The band is young, though and the night occasionally points at their potential and showcases what great songs they have written so far. Whilst it is hard to see a band of their imprint who initially come across as a hipster take on Buddy Holly rock ‘n’ roll jangle fused with a little Beach Boys harmony playing venues much larger than the Scala, on this side of the Atlantic at least, hopefully it’ll mean they can come back to Pentonville Road and nail it to a full-house.