After being hailed as both “devastatingly fresh” by the New York Times and “the year’s best new artist” by Spin, I was a bit skeptical Girls could live up to their hyper-hype. But despite their ultra-ironic name and debut album title, their music is good. Really good. And about a thousand times more charming and creepy when heard live.
Sunday night’s sold-out show at Muddy Waters featured three Bay Area bands playing heartbreaking songs set to pretty pop melodies. The night opened with the un-billed S.F.-based Dominant Legs, who played a handful of songs, each with a completely different downtempo sound. Sometimes they’re Islands, or the Unicorns, or a less sugary-sweet Belle and Sebastian, but lovely Hannah Hunt’s gorgeous voice always complimented bandmate Ryan William Lynch’s Jose Gonzales-esque croon.
Following their sleepy set, The Morning Benders stirred the quiet crowd with their dreamy, fun vocals and funky bass lines. These adorable Berkeley boys (seriously, they’re all under 24) played some fresh new songs, an experience which singer Chris Chu compared to falling in love for the first time.
And then the San Franciscan saviors of indie rock strolled out. Looking like Kurt Cobain in Marty McFly’s clothes, Girls frontman Chris Owens sang bad break-up diary entries in Elvis Costello’s voice, or maybe Buddy Holly’s. But he’s not making fun of them, or even himself: Owens is just a seriously heartbroken guy channeling despair into sunny Pet Sounds-style pop.
Girls opened with “Lust for Life,” a great single whose infectious, beachy happiness forced even the most stoic Santa Barbarans to smile and shake. With hand-clapping, a groovy melodica solo, and lyrics about wishing for a sun tan, a pizza, and a bottle of wine, it feels like a anthem for secretly-optimistic youth culture everywhere.
The rest of the set showed off Girls’ slightly creepy vibe. The music was good, but listening to the lyrics, in particular amongst a tightly-packed group of people, feels a bit voyeuristic. Owens also smartly covered John Lennon’s “Real Love,” picking up and dragging out the song to its slightly eerie conclusion. But the band’s best musical moment of the night broke any and all awkward intimacy. “Morning Light” is a heavy shoegaze hit whose electric sound showed what Girls might be if they stop whining and start rocking. Muddy Waters never felt so small, and Girls never sounded so good.