Based in San Francisco but fronting a sunnier, fuzzier sound that has more to do with a Southern California contaminated by the melodic chutzpah of early 1960s East Coast vocal groups, this duo of self-described losers is the latest big deal in the American underground. At first, it isn’t clear what the big deal is. Girls’ songs are poppy and atmospheric, and Christopher Owens’ voice is emotionally evocative in much the same way that Elvis Costello’s or Conor Oberst’s were when each first raised eyebrows in their respective eras, though Owens sounds even more touched by something sinister.
On their debut album, named plainly enough “Album,” Girls seem to be reaching for something without ever quite grasping it, and eventually it is this incompleteness that make them appealing, if not a little bit pathetic. The creepily addictive “Hellhole Ratrace” starts off sounding like an old Ronettes lament, and as the song keeps repeating its same lachrymose sentiments it increases in intensity without speeding up. Owens’ despair becomes so palpably heartbreaking that when you subsequently learn of his horrific upbringing at the hands of die-hard Christian fanatics, whatever he lacks in musicianship is made up for with feelings translated so directly they’re impossible to avoid. In “Summertime,” he remembers a past in which he “soaked up the sun” with that special someone, but the break in his voice implies a memory selected for its power to help him forget everything else in his past. By this token, the group’s name could be taken ironically, but all the songs are straightforwardly about relationships with the opposite sex, and bittersweet to a fault. Girls have plenty of time to grow musically. They sound as if they’ve already had way too much experience with real life.
Girls play Harajuku Astro Hall in Tokyo at 7 p.m. on Jan. 14. Tickets cost ¥4,500 in advance. For more information call, (03) 3462-6969.