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Concert Thu Jan 17 2013

Review: Christopher Owens @ Lincoln Hall 1/15

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Photos by Cody Davis

This sounds weird, but I'm used to picturing Christopher Owens singing in his underwear.

It's probably because that was the first image most of us ever saw of him, on the cover of the debut Girls album back in 2009, sitting on the edge of a bed playing his guitar in nothing but underwear and socks, looking either seriously hungover, lovesick, or both. But the image turned out to be a pretty accurate visualization of the music on that album--and for the rest of his music with Girls, for that matter. The songs Owens wrote for Girls laid bare a deeply wounded soul without ever being too specific about anything. Lyrics like "I was feeling so sad and alone / but I found a friend in the song that I'm singing" would have likely sounded trite and unoriginal coming from anyone else. Coming from Owens and his erratic, disturbed singing voice, they were somehow gut wrenching. It was as if he was, in fact, showing himself half-naked and vulnerable.

Naturally, then, it was a little disorienting to see Owens and his touring band dressed up in suit jackets, ties, and dresses at Lincoln Hall on Tuesday on their tour in support of Owens' solo album, Lysandre--his first release after leaving Girls last summer.

Shortly after fellow San Francisco-band Melted Toys opened the night with a promising set of demented dream-pop, Lincoln Hall took a dramatic turn for the formal. A man in a suit and tie started taking woodwind instruments out of their respective cases. A vase of red and white roses appeared near the front of the stage. Someone turned on a fog machine. And when Owens finally took the stage, he sat down.

The formality of Lysandre is one of the most striking differences from Owens' work with Girls. As the frontman of that band, he was vulnerable, distraught, but always relatable. As a solo artist on Lysandre, he is formal, self-confident, but specific to an almost frustrating degree.

Lysandre is a short, focused concept album about a very specific situation in Owens' recent life as a touring musician. A boyfriend falls in love "with that girl." Owens then falls in love with a girl of his own. Owens and the girl say goodbye. That's essentially the story, and it's presented in storybook fashion, with recurring musical themes and steady pacing.

At Lincoln Hall, Owens and and his band played through Lysandre in its entirety, largely keeping the steady pace of the record. Despite occasional outbursts from the crowd in between, Owens had no intention of offering any dialogue. The main set was over in about 30 minutes.

What the live setting did offer was an enhanced look at the dynamics of Lysandre. Despite Owens now being a solo artist, he hasn't sacrificed any of the instrumentation and production value of his music with the Girls, and his touring band offered rich accompaniment between harmonica solos, saxophone solos, and vibrant percussion. Live, the band was also able to emphasize the ups and downs from song-to-song in a way that isn't as immediately noticeable on record.

The most frustrating part of the evening, however, came with the five-song encore of covers. Because Lysandre's run time is so short, Owens chose to play covers of various songwriting standards such as Cat Stevens' "Wild World", "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" by Bob Dylan, and "The Boxer", by Simon and Garfunkel. The song choices were excellent, and it was easy to hear their influence on Owens' own songwriting. But lumped together at the end of the set, it felt more like an insufferable camp sing-along more than anything. Owens and his band didn't bother to shake things up at all, and instead, they played uninspired, true-to-the-original versions.

It was an interesting decision given the doubt that's so bluntly expressed in Owens' song "Love Is in the Ear of the Believer". "What if I'm just a bad songwriter / And everything I say has been said before?" he worries before immediately reassuring himself with the lines: "Well everything to say has been said before / And that's not what makes or breaks us up".

In the past--and despite a complicated biography--Owens has never needed to be so specific in his songwriting. In fact, his music's universality was always one of its strengths. The bits of information he revealed in interviews served their purpose if you were interested, but just listening to his music alone, you could just tell that he knew something, that he knew how to turn complicated feelings into something cathartic that could also resonate emotionally with a large audience.

So the covers he played during the encore were certainly an example of all that has been said so well before through songwriting. And if Owens is offering the songs on Lysandre as his own contribution to that discussion, that's all well and good. It just seems like he was already doing that to much greater effect with the band he chose to leave behind.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

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