Christopher Owens, the former singer/slacker of psychedelic pop duo Girls, performed his second solo gig on Wednesday night at Le Poisson Rouge. The mod Manhattan venue offered an upscale backdrop for the East Coast unveiling of Lysandre, his first solo album, which will be released in January.
Lysandre recasts Owens as a singer-songwriter, a role he is, admittedly, still feeling out: “This is only the second time we’re all playing together. We’re still getting used to this,” Owens said, as if he assumed three-quarters through his set that the packed room had mistakenly come to hear Girls. His misgivings are not evident in the music. Lysandre is a confident debut that showcases Owens’ ability to write palatable pop/folk with eclectic flair that’s just part of the Bay Area air he breathes in.
Lysandre continues in the long history of songs written about struggling New York City artists with big California dreams (which always tend to involve a California girl). For Owens’ songwriting heroes (Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan), that destination was always San Francisco. In the ’60s, New York folkies were so infatuated with that city it only felt “down the road.” On this night, it wasn’t even that far. There was a flower basket onstage. A silver bearded man played the panpipes. Willowy backup singers were draped in velvet, cooing to the refrain of: “Kissing and hugging are the air we breathe.” The only thing missing at this point was a fog machine.
The tale of Lysandre covers a lot of geography, from New York to San Francisco, all the way to France. Yet the only space Owens ever seems interested in is the one occupied by the girl watching TV on his couch, smoking his cigarettes, and telling him when they should kiss (“Lysander’s Theme”). If it wasn’t evident by the name of Owens’ last band, Owens is a fragile slave to girl power. All the songs on Girls’ Father, Son, Holy Ghost are about figuring out girls, following girls, thinking about girls, and mind-reading girls. If Marcel Proust could have written a pop song, it would have been “Vomit”. That song’s theme of obsessive first love pervades on Lysandre, in rockers like “Here We Go Again” and the meditative “New York City”.
Owens’ protagonist kids himself about his creative process, because it always comes back to Lysandre. On the tongue-in-cheek “Love is in the Ear of the Listener”, Owens satirizes himself as a “bad songwriter” because “Everything has been said before.” But as long as the topic is Lysandre, what’s the problem? Lysandre haunts him on the ballad, “A Broken Heart”. She excites him on romantic retelling “Everywhere You Knew”. Even when Owens isn’t singing about her, “Lysandre’s Theme” trickles throughout the love suite through an array of instrumentation, from saxophone to harmonica. Owens can’t avoid this character Lysander, because he can’t avoid himself — try, as every singer-songwriter might.
Owens’ songwriting talents belie his struggle to define himself. While seated, his greasy blond locks portrayed a young Kurt Cobain, but standing in his goofy high-water khakis, he looked more like Elvis Costello. Those icons render a deeper correlation to Owens’ music, which vacillates between Cobain’s grunge gravitas and Costello’s 50s-inspired lilt. Owens alternated sitting and standing between every song, like he kept trying to decide between the two. Can you be both? Would the angels want to wear Kurt Cobain’s red shoes? It will be interesting to see how Owens grapples with this question as his music evolves.
Owens and his band ended the night with a run of covers, including Cat Stevens’ “Wild World”, Donovan’s “Lalena”, the Everly Bros’ cover “Let It Be Me”, and Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” (the hippie-sister backup singers really owned that number, proving that some things never change). The venue vibrated with Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”, a song about New York City that no one ever sings in New York City. But Owens renewed it — a reminder that this city always makes room for poor boys and girls whose stories are seldom told.