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Live Nude* Girls in New York City!

If you found yourself driven to New York’s Bowery Ballroom on Friday night solely by the vaguely Messianic reaction to San Francisco duo Girls’ debut, Album, then you could be forgiven if, for much of the evening, you wondered whether you were even in the right building.

Certainly the songs were there and performed more or less the way they sound on record, infused with ’50s proto-rock and ’60s acid-casualty decay. But given the album’s strung-out charm, and in particular, lead singer and guitarist Christopher Owens’ now-legendary Children-of-God-gone-to-seed presence, the set was most noticeable for what wasn’t there.

For a band so driven by character, careful, even clinical reproduction of Album‘s soulful mistakes seems the last thing we’d want.

In his tattered Cobain rag-doll sweater and tangle of hair, Owens is magnetic to look at, and even maintains his own doppelganger within the band – brand new touring guitarist Ryan Church has similar locks and high-perched guitar, as did recently departed predecessor John Anderson – as if he were starting a cult of his own. (Bassist Chet “JR” White is, nominally, the other half of Girls.)

While agreeable tunes like “Laura” and “Ghostmouth” settled for remaining agreeable, album, or rather, Album standout “Summertime” was a slow-burning early high point. Girls are at their strongest when the sunny bits give way to hints of menace, and “Summertime” sounds like post-breakdown Brian Wilson conjuring Beach Boys ditties from his sandbox in 1975.

To this end, it was the epic single “Hellhole Ratrace” that found the four musicians, including new drummer Garrett Godard, finally meshing and melting, immersing themselves in the song’s desperation and exultation enough to be as overcome by it as the audience. Owens’ refrain wail, “I don’t wanna die,” is all the more urgent when you believe dying’s a real possibility.

Ultimately, it’s those raw, too-rare moments that Girls will build on to capitalize on the goodwill afforded by their accolades. They’ve only been a band for two years, and only been playing with this lineup a few weeks – they should be allowed their tentative fumbling. After all, that’s what Girls are all about.