Sunday, January 6, 2013

Album Review: Christopher Owens - "Lysandre"


On July 2 of last year, a heavy blow was delivered to my music-loving heart: one of my favorite artists of the last 5 years was disbanding... Girls was to be no more. Christopher Owens, the lead member of the San Francisco-based duo announced via Twitter that he was stepping away from the group, and continuing onwards with his musical career, vowing never to play in a band again.

This was somewhat of a shock, and to be honest, I was probably a little more distraught than I should have been: every release by Girls hit very close to home, and their music was undoubtedly some of the best indie pop I'd heard since The Shins. All three albums (two LP's - Album and Father, Son, Holy Ghost and one EP - Broken Dreams Club) shined with emotion, coupled with phenomenal musicianship and songwriting talent. This was the worst news I had heard since LCD Soundsystem disbanded the year before.

These feelings of pain and disappointment were quickly replaced with elation once it was announced that Christopher Owens' solo album, Lysandre was set to be released just 5 months after the announcement of Girls' demise. There were still plenty of questions that raced through my head, the most prominent of which revolved around whether or not Owens' sound would stay true to his previous work, or if he would change everything. Girls' music was always rock-influenced, sounding like a mix of songwriters like Elvis Costello and Scott Walker, and over time, the psychedelic side of the music began to take shape while mixing with gospel - without fully committing to either. Thus I was intrigued at which direction the front man and face of the former band would take. Girls was always an (almost) overly-visceral group, with Owens often writing songs about inner struggle, whether it be with love, religion, family, or substance abuse, etc. It was my desire that this never changed.

And I'm happy to report: it doesn't.

Lysandre is an amazing piece of art. Serving almost as a concept album; a glimpse in to Christopher Owens' life and troubles: a man who has already been through so much, and now has the experience of having to leave a very personal and important part of his life behind. The emotions he went through during the bands rise are laid out beautifully in each song on the album, which were all written in the same key, with similar structures, motifs, and instrumentation throughout.

The grace of the transition from the opening instrumental "Lysandre's Theme" to "Here We Go" is phenomenal. The latter is a track written about Owens' preparation for the first tours he went on with Girls, asking, "listen to me sing, New York City/ And if your heart is broken, you will find fellowship with me."

This leads directly in to the next song, "New York City" a more upbeat song which has Christopher Owens' singing about his disbelief in where is life has taken him, from Amarillo, Texas: speaking of being woken up to a "loaded gun, crooked cops and cookin' drugs" straight in to "Look at us in New York City, everyone is listening to me..." The saxophone makes its first appearance in the album, and the break in this song brings a smirk to your face, subtly reminiscent of 70's rock. The song is without question one of the catchiest songs from Lysandre.

Owens states that this song, and the following tracks "A Broken Heart" and "Here We Go Again" are the result of running in to an ex-lover: "Nothing like a memory to open up a broken heart," as "Broken Heart" begins. Our singer/"hero of the story" is faced with the troublesome idea that being on tour means running in to familiar faces wherever he goes, some he may not be ready to encounter; "...no longer hiding at home," as he describes the song's theme. He quickly turns the tables with an upbeat "Here We Go Again" singing, "don't try and get me down, don't try to harsh my mellow man... I'm gonna get right up and get outta here." (Yes, that's right, he says "harsh my mellow")

And then we get to my favorite tracks on the album, "Riviera Rock", "Love Is In The Ear Of The Listener" and "Lysandre".

Prefaced by samples of a plane landing, and sounds of a beach (in this case, The French Riviera), "Riviera Rock" features none of Owens' voice, and instead sets the scene of Girls' travels to France, with female vocals simply repeating the title of the song over a catchy acoustic guitar melody and ... you guessed it... more saxophone. The following track, "Love Is In The Ear Of The Beholder" opens with the line "What if I'm just a bad songwriter, and everything I say has been said before" demonstrating the self-doubt that comes with creating any form of art. "If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, love is in the ear of the listener"

The origin behind the title track (and album), "Lysandre" is something familiar to fans of Girls. Written and named about a female (an oft-used tactic Girls used on their previous albums) working at a music festival, the crush he developed on her, and her immediate response to him, or lack thereof, which clearly stuck with him.

This is what makes this album so impeccable; Owens has the ability to combine arbitrary events and unique experiences to make an amazing song, and an 11-track album from them. He uses the music to tell a story: his story, and in the meantime paints a picture of beauty, grace, sorrow, melancholy and joy, all with lyrics and simple melodies.

Lysandre is Christopher Owens' masterpiece: a glimpse in to the turmoils he has been forced to deal with his entire life, or even over the past few years; whether self-inflicted or outside of his control, the result of his tales and toils is Lysandre. It feels good to have Christopher Owens back in the music game after only a brief absence. With Lysandre, he changes little to the formula that brought him such great success with Girls, but maybe that's just to help us realize that he really was Girls all along.

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