Album Review: A New Testament by Christopher Owens
Satisfactory, Based on 16 Critics
musicOMH.com - 70 Based on rating 3.5
Former Girls frontman Christopher Owens is something of an enigma. While much is made of his interesting childhood – which saw him grow up in the travelling religious cult Children of God – everything that the 35-year-old from Miami does seems to create intrigue. Take the artwork for his second solo album, A New Testament, which is difficult to ignore in the same way that a car crash is for a passing motorist.
Christopher Owens’ career is predicated on the idea that music is the healing force of the universe. The particulars of his own story—raised in a Christian cult, a struggle with heroin addiction—are less important than the notion that music has the power to lift the downtrodden, give strength to the weak, and help anyone feeling down to carry on. One of the tensions that made his band Girls so great is that Owens always seemed like both a performer and a member of the audience; by borrowing melodies and phrases from well known pop hits, he seemed like he was listening and creating at the same time and, by extension, using his music to help both his audience and himself.
There’s a moment about halfway through “Vomit” — the lonely, sprawling, prog rock epic from the final Girls album, Father, Son, Holy Ghost — when the monsoon of sadness above Christopher Owens’ head finally, triumphantly subsides. “Come in to my heart,” he cries, his quivering voice backed by a church organ and an army of choir singers. If that mid-song shift is symbolic of some revelatory climax in Owens’ career and life — one beset by mental illness, drugs, and the recurring trauma associated with a troubled upbringing — then A New Testament, his second solo album following the puzzling, uneven Lysandre, is the tidy resolution sequence, the part of the film where we get to see our main character slowly chiseling away at a better, happier existence.
Girls were a big deal, weren’t they? Maybe even bigger than any of us realised at the time. It might just be me, but it feels like they’re becoming more and more fondly remembered as time goes by. Perversely, though, dissolving his brilliant band may prove to be the best thing Christopher Owens could have done to promulgate his artistic legacy, untethering himself to make whatever the hell kind of record he wants.
What a strange musical career Christopher Owens has had. As a member of Girls he made, alongside Chet “JR” White, the dazzling debut Album and its sprawling, lo-fi follow-up Father, Son, Holy Ghost. After quitting that group, Owens returned with the dreamy, flute-heavy solo album Lysandre, recorded in a solitary night and based largely around a single medieval motif.
New Musical Express (NME) - 60 Based on rating 3/5
On the cover of ‘A New Testament’, his second solo album, Christopher Owens is wearing a pink cowboy hat, a fringed leather waistcoat and a dopey smile. Flanked by the singers and musicians that appear on the album, the former Girls singer’s pasty midriff is on display and black tassels hang over his arm. By contrast, on the sleeve of Girls’ 2006 debut ‘Album’ he had looked unhealthy, clutching his guitar.
As frontman for the now defunct Girls, Christopher Owens developed a cult-like following among music fans and critics alike; Girls could do no wrong. After disbanding though, Owens' solo material never reached the heights that Girls' two releases did. His first solo outing, Lysandre, while far from being reviled, received only a moderately positive response, one that was tainted with apprehension and frustration at its lack of ambition.
Two albums released in as many years, as well as the odd set of acoustic arrangements, speaks volumes of how prolific and dedicated a songwriter Christopher Owens really is. With this second solo record, Owens is fully exploring what figures as a previously unturned stone in his songwriting, with the ambitiously minded and thoroughly unpopular streak through both country and western and Christian rock; ‘A New Testament’ is littered with Owens’ stab at reinventing, or at least reappropriating, whole genres in his image, the lovingly troubled rock and roll troubadour. Burning out brightly, and intensely, over a short period of three years, Girls, the San Francisco band which Owens fronted, figure into any discussion of the singer-songwriter’s work, especially as this album’s sound builds further back into a fuller, more wholesome band.
The second solo outing from ex-Girls singer/songwriter Christopher Owens stays with the cheery vibes of 2012's Lysandre but swaps pastoral twee for full-throttle Americana. The album is a heartfelt foray into classic country of the George Jones variety that Owens embraces with studious and slick production (helped by producer Doug Boehm) full of rollicking riffs, gospel diva histrionics and achy-breaky balladry that markedly contrasts with the artist's grungy image and delicate delivery. Things get interesting when the genre's earnest conventions are at odds with his secular pragmatism.
You typically wouldn’t describe Christopher Owens’ music as same old same old, not considering his back catalog with indie oddballs Girls and what’s known about the life experiences that have shaped his perspective as a songwriter. As his stranger-than-fiction bio goes, Owens fled from the Children of God religious cult in Slovenia at the age of 16 to live with his sister in Amarillo, Texas, where he was then taken under the wing of an eccentric oil tycoon, only then to strike out for San Francisco to seek his own fame and fortune as an artist. And that was something he was well on his way to achieving with Girls, creating two well-received neo-retro-rock albums before abruptly breaking up in 2012.
On the follow-up to his tender, Baroque-infused debut Lysandre, former Girls frontman Christopher Owens takes a different path with the country-infused A New Testament. Working again with producer Doug Boehm, Owens colors his quirky songwriting style with a mix of pedal steel and a trio of female backing vocalists, exploring his relationship with both country and gospel music. While a heavily themed album may surprise some fans, it's not that big a stretch for the California-based songwriter.
Christopher Owens, ex-Girls frontman, has named his record A New Testament despite the fact that it sounds like something you've heard hundreds of times before. It's accessible on a first listen because every trick he has up his sleeve has been in the music trope wheelhouse since the '50s or earlier. This isn't so much a bad record as a boring one. .
The music of Christopher Owens has always made it clear that he is a scholar of American music. Father, Son, Holy Ghost, his third and final release with Girls, kicks off with the rollicking Honey Bunny, a song which stands as one of Owens’ all-time best singles and aptly borrows the galloping groove from Buddy Holly’s Peggy Sue to make its point. The album’s other bookend is the gorgeous Jamie Marie, a ballad which Owens told Pitchfork was the album’s “Randy Newman song.” Lust For Life, the Girls cut from Album that drew them critical attention in the first place, has layered, Beach Boys-esque backing vocals that set the song apart from the output of other bands of Girls’ ilk.
Lucinda Williams made her first album for her own label, Highway 20 Records, a magnum opus: two discs, 20 songs and a summation of what has endeared her to a large, loyal following. She’s pithy and penetrating, bruised but steadfast, proud of the grain and drawl of her voice. Her music places ….
You’re probably familiar with Christopher Owens’ back story by now, but here’s a whistlestop tour of the journey that’s brought him to this point for the uninitiated; you’d need quite the imagination to make it up. He grew up in the travelling religious cult Children of God, escaped in his teens whilst in Slovenia, was taken under the wing of a Texas oil billionaire upon his arrival in Amarillo, and eventually moved to San Francisco to begin making music. Everything about Owens seems just a little bit other-worldly; for example, he’s disarmingly honest about his ongoing battle with drug addiction where so many of his contemporaries go to lengths to keep their own under wraps.
Christopher Owens, whether consciously or not, seems to be distancing himself from his short-lived band, Girls. Where the depressingly small discography of that band was inventive and charismatic, Owens’ solo debut, Lysandre, was a stick in the mud, a ballad-heavy roots record that failed to be as dynamic or compelling as anything his previous band released. For all of Owens’ more introspective songwriting tendencies, records like Girls’ debut, Album, benefited from bombast.