When Christopher Owens, singer and songwriter for the San Fransisco pop band Girls, announced this summer that he was leaving that group, maybe, possibly, ending it for good, it was a shock. The band was in the midst of a steady upswing in popularity. If there were ambitions left unfulfilled on the band’s lushly orchestrated second album, Father, Son, Holy Ghost they weren’t obvious. Owens’ consistent aim as a songwriter has been measuring up to oldies radio standards. He was doing that at a high level, already. What ceiling was he bumping his head against?
For his NYC solo debut, (Le) Poisson Rouge was set up like a supper club, its floor filled with reserved tables of the artist’s friend and contemporaries, complete with cocktail menus and table service. A ring of limited space for ticket buyers and not-quite-VIP press filed in behind. (A table near that ring was saved specifically for “Mount Eerie”, I noticed.) The room went dark, and the crowd got unusually quiet, as Owens came out with a five-piece band and two velvet-draped lady backup singers. Stripping down to bare essentials was probably not his unfulfilled desire. There was a grey-bearded flautist!
He debuted his forthcoming album Lysandre playing it from front-to-back for maybe 35 minutes of gentle, focused, banter-less performance. Billed as a complete song cycle about fleeting love during Girls’ first real tour, the record is a continuation of Owens’ fixation on AM radio classicism. But delicate and blond, seated and suited for most of the show, he looked more like Kurt C. on MTV Unplugged than any icon of 60s pop. The stage could have easily taken a candelabra or two. (There was a “no photography” sign posted, and no one was obnoxious about disregarding it, but it was ignored by plenty of folks better situated than I was, if you are interested.)
The songs were lighter than the big, occasionally bombastic bleeding heart stuff Girls did. Every song sounded exactly like its recorded version, to an impressive, uncanny degree. If Owens felt his songwriting growing past Girls’ ability to perform it, this measured, precise, warm-breeze simplicity was maybe what he was missing. The afforementined flautist, Vince Meghrouni, has session credits going back to the 70s. He doubled as a saxophone and harmonic man as needed. The group had the presence of air-tight mercenaries, with a reserved competence that never stole focus from Owens lightly crumpled center of attention.
His new lyrics, plain and immediate as ever, sometimes doubled as closed captions dictacting what we were seeing. “Rock n’ roll in New York City. Everybody’s listening to me.” Yup. Mainly he sang about love with unguarded devotion, and often twee sweetness (“kissin and a huggin’ are the air that I breathe”). But there were notable moments of acknowledged self-doubt. “Love is in the Ear of the Listener” started with the insecure then reassuring lines, “What if I’m just a bad songwriter, and everything I say has been said before? Well, everything to say has been said before, and that’s not what makes or breaks a song.”
Trying to figure out the right word for this is tricky. The earnestness of it rules out “ironic.” What he’s saying is out front, on the surface, just like writing a love song that ditches any metaphorical flourish to just straight up sing about love. (He does that a lot too.) The lyrics confront a common knock on Owens’ work in the frankest, simplest words possible. It’s not like there’s a deeper “meta” level to it. Still, there’s that kinda complicated Jonathan Richman feeling in standing there hearing it, where it’s so on the level that it can’t help but come across as a manic joke. We laughed, it was funny. Owens smiled shyly like he knew it was. But there’s not even a joke there, really.
After the album was done, the band came back to play about 20 or so additional minutes of cover songs from the 60s and early 70s, in a textbook “let me put my current work in its proper context” maneuver. They were the sort of songs that a square twelve-year-old in the early 90s, with no MTV in the house and no such thing as the Internet might gravitate towards in his parents record collection. (Totally a universal description and not a personal projection.) “Wild World” by Cat Stevens, “Lalena” by Donovan, The Everly Brothers version of “Let it Be Me”, “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” by Bob Dylan. His band executed them as note perfectly as they’d replicated Owens own album, absent any bashfulness, or air quote armor. If you’ve ever tried to sing along to Donovan’s trembling folky falsetto in “Lalena”, and I have, you might understand how tough it is to pull off without disintegrating into a giggle fit. But the purity of this stuff is potent, and you can love it without being embarrassed, or feeling guilty for being totally retrograde for 2012. Owens does, clearly.