Friday, Nov. 9, 2012
In his first public performance since leaving the celebrated local rock band Girls, Christopher Owens debuted his new solo album, Lysandre, at an intimate, sold-out, and very brief show in San Francisco last night.
Playing at the Lodge, a luxurious, wood-paneled room above the Regency Ballroom, Owens and his band showed off the 11 songs from Lysandre, and followed them with an encore of covers that included Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer," Cat Stevens' "Wild World," and Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." The whole thing lasted about 50 minutes.
The lush, reverent covers at the end shed a revealing light on Owens new solo material. While much of his Girls songs viewed classic American pop through a druggy, distorted lens, Owens' new songs trade that distancing grit for intricate, almost baroque arrangements of finger-picked acoustic guitar, flute, saxophone, keyboards, and background vocals. If the cover choices are any indication, Owens -- who has long said he aspires to write a timeless song -- is now aiming right down the middle of American folk-pop.
Seated onstage last night, the diminutive singer wore a black suit with a green striped tie, and played only a Spanish-style acoustic-electric guitar. Many of his new songs followed slow tempos appropriate for a seated audience. Programs listing the song titles and the names of the musicians were laid out on all the chairs, further distinguishing this from a standard rock show.
Taken as a whole, the new songs reveal a much more mature and practiced Owens than the one of early Girls singles "Laura" and "Hellhole Ratrace." Nearly every one found a way to include the melody from "Lysandre's Theme," the album's first song, either as a major element or a brief quotation, often played on the flute. Many were slow, but there were a few uptempo rockers, most notably the brisk "New York City," with its wailing saxophone lines. And the near-instrumental "Rivera Rock" found Owens and his seven-piece band striking an almost jazzy vibe, with watery organ chords and the background singers chanting "Rivera."
Owens says the new album is a complete narrative inspired by events on Girls' first tour in 2008, following him from San Francisco to New York to France -- where he meets and falls in love with the album's namesake -- and then back to San Francisco. The pieces of the arc were more or less discernible in each song. But while Owens has said Lysandre is "much more" than a love story, the romantic themes seemed to overshadow everything else in the lyrics we caught.
So, then, did Owens' signature lyrical frankness. Some of the lines were almost wincingly straightforward: "Don't try to get me down," he sang on "Here We Go Again," "Don't try to harsh my mellow... I'm going to get right up and get out of here." Often his plainspokenness was charming, though, as on "Love is in the Ear of the Beholder," where he wondered: "What if I'm just a bad songwriter, and everything I've said has been said before... What if I'm everybody just thinks I'm a phony/ What if nobody ever gets it?"
Owens has never had a problem being forthright, and the songs on Lysandre find him as confessional and straightforward as ever. Given the prettiness and seeming transparency of the new songs, though, the question facing Owens' new album is whether it will retain some of the murk and intrigue that gave Girls' music its unsettling appeal.
Or, perhaps, whether his new work will find some other element to replace that. Because while the covers that filled Owens' encore last night sounded beautiful, they took no risks and offered few surprises. There's nothing wrong with playing by-the-book versions of "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," (complete with harmonica), or "Let It Be Me," or "Laléna," of course. But the strengths of Owens in Girls were his unflinching emotionalism and ability to build classic pop melodies and structures within tortured, contemporary sonics. Last night's show found him taking a mostly different tack. The results were, on the whole, gorgeous. Whether they'll be compelling upon repeat listens remains to be seen.
The voice: Owens tends to sing toward the high end of his range, and delivers his lyrics with his eyes closed, his face pinched together to reach the notes. Sometimes he doesn't quite make it. But solo, as with Girls, his relatively weak singing voice is part of what makes Owens' music interesting, especially when it's contrasted with such a proficient band. And he sounds better now than he used to -- clearer and less nasal.
At home: "Thanks a lot for being here tonight," Owens said at the start of the encore. "That was the first performance of the new album, and it's nice to do it at home."
As a whole: Last night Lysandre felt totally of a piece, thematically and sonically, with that indelible melody weaving through nearly every song. At about 30 minutes long, we're inclined to see it as more of a suite divided into pieces -- a complete, conceptual work -- than a rock or folk album in the common, bunch-of-different-songs sense. Which is a good thing.
And speaking of romance: While Owens was singing of an old love, his current one was right there onstage with him. Hannah Hunt, half of now-partially-defunct S.F. band Dominant Legs, was singing background vocals with Owens last night. She couldn't seem to help flashing him a few broad, affectionate smiles during the show.
They were serious about the no phones thing last night:
1. Lysandre's Theme
2. Here We Go
3. New York City
4. A Broken Heart
5. Here We Go Again
6. Riviera Rock
7. Love is in the Ear of the Listener
9. Everywhere You Knew
10. Closing Theme
11. Part of Me (Lysandre's Epilogue)
E1. Wild World (Cat Stevens)
E2. Laléna (Donovan)
E3. The Boxer (Simon and Garfunkel)
E4. Let It Be Me (most famously by the Everly Brothers)
E5. Don't Think Twice, It's All Right (Bob Dylan)