Girls have all the trappings for a one-record wonder. Here was a group of San Francisco delinquents led by a druggy, charismatic singer with a biography that rivals Cage’s in terms of its storybook nature, playing music that sounded bitingly new yet romantically nostalgic at the same time. Not only that, but they had the gall to entitle their debut with a sarcastic, flash-in-the-pan name like Album (which built a legacy over 12 tracks). If it was the last we’d ever hear from band, it would almost be poetic, encapsulating the rock ’n’ roll fantasyland Girls so lovingly subscribe to.
But they’ve returned almost exactly a year after that seminal debut with Broken Dreams Club, a six-song EP that Christopher Owens has referred to as a “sign of things to come.” If that’s the case, new Girls material will reach past the glimmering ‘60s garage-pop and spruce up their skeletal guitar arrangements with Spector brass and thundering studio trickeries. Essentially, Broken Dreams Club sounds like the record Girls didn’t have the money for while they were putting together Album. Everything is more complex, more daring, and simply more produced than anything else they’ve done. In that sense, it’s the best kind of EP, existing because of a discernable creative spark, not as a clearinghouse for also-ran songs or a victory lap following a knockout year.
Girls stuck out initially because of their retro-rock sensibilities. On Broken Dreams Club they take that aesthetic to its ultimate end. One charting album and a world tour later, Girls have the means to record the pop songs they want to record. The band skirts behind the former Beach Boys comparisons into the swing-rock roots of late-‘50s pop. Owens sounds more like Orbison than ever before — his chortled croak replaced by a cracked, airy whimper. Opening ballad “Oh So Protective One” is punctuated by quick trumpet blasts, hitting the Ed Sullivan doe-eyed aesthetic note for note. The title-track, a slow, lonesome slow-dancer is almost guitar-less, instead centered on organ twinkles, sighing violins, and a hammy trombone solo. The gorgeous “Substance” might be the first time someone other than Owens has sung on a Girls song, matched by a distant female vocal until the very end where he admits that “if I had love I’d throw it all away.”
And then there’s “Carolina,” the closer that might be the best song Girls have ever penned, towering over the rest of the EP with a long, darkened shadow. It’s a swooning, seven-minute opus, using its first four minutes for pure build-up. Owens repeats an ominous “and with the speed of sound” over pouding, Spiderland-like drums – and when the monolithic noise lets up and Owens cries a shattered “I’m gonna pick you up baby/ Throw you over my shoulder/ Take you away/ I’m gonna carry you home to Carolina,” it sounds exactly like the record’s namesake, a broken dream, an ideal that will never be realized regardless of the hope behind it. There’s a damaged vibration to Owens voice, as if he knows just as well that he’ll never be able to save the damaged lover he’s placating, but he’ll never admit that to her. It’s a devesating, emotion-tugging explosion from a band who specialize in teary-eyed anthems, and something that transforms Broken Dreams Club into a much more holistic work than your average EP.
It’s hard to believe but Owens is more emotional here than on the entirely crestfallen Album. While their older work at least feigned some joyousness (“Hellhole Ratrace” was more of admittance than sorrow), Broken Dreams Club lacks that façade entirely; “It’s hard enough to be alone/ It’s harder still to spend so long looking for happiness/ I’m feeling so restless.” The music itself reciprocates melancholy, but the uncanny warmth of these minor chords and bold production never lets Owens’ heartsickness dabble into tired woe-is-me territory. There’s no earbug like “Lust for Life,” but that makes sense here. The schizo demeanor of Album has passed, and Broken Dreams Club has the frayed nerves and built-up exhaustion showing.