Broken Dreams Club EP
(True Panther Sounds/Matador; 2010)
By Andrew Hall | 19 November 2010
The last fourteen months or so have been pretty strong for Girls. The band’s debut, Album (2009), got high praise from just about everywhere (CMG included, and I’d rate it even higher now) and has held up well. Despite Christopher Owens’ lyrics, described by some of our staff as being “awful,” Chet “J. R.” White’s intricate, damn-near perfect production and aggressively good bass lines elevated even the most ponderous, inane moments of their debut into something that truly resonated—something that has stayed in my personal heavy rotation ever since.
Things were good enough, in fact, that the band built its own studio and prepped a thirty minute EP, Broken Dreams Club, framed by a long letter from frontman Christopher Owens as a thank you to their supporters over the last year and, more than anything else, a taste of where the band’s going next. The biggest shift here is in the arrangements; since Album‘s release Girls picked up a full-time keyboardist and added strings, horns, and pedal steel to their arsenal, which in turn has led to bigger, more ambitious songs. For the most part, the band’s new material will either hit the same pleasure centers or completely repel in the same ways that Album does, but these songs take longer to get there. It’s practically a collection of country-pop filtered through the aesthetics of Spiritualized leader Jason Pierce, and every bit as catchy, alienating, and impressive as that sounds.
Before the EP gets too heady or druggy, though, it takes a detour to Berkeley circa 1980. While I mentioned Jonathan Richman when I tackled the band’s debut, the singer-songwriter’s shadow looms large over this EP, which often sounds like one of the many records Richman made for Beserkley after abandoning electric instruments. “Thee Oh So Protective One” opens on an organ lead with strummed nylon-string acoustic guitar, and blossoms into a chorus with a trumpet line and melodies that make the homage all the more apparent. Lyrically, however, Owens is in territory that he seems to be truly making his own, all tears and heartbreak.
If you need further evidence of this, just look to the fact that the next track (and single) is called “Heartbreaker.” Drums propel the song from section to section far more than either Owens’ guitars or White’s bass, which barely leaves an impression when compared to the moment in which the drums drop out and Owens sings “When I said that I loved you, honey / I knew that you would break my heart.” Overall, however, the song’s overlong and doesn’t deliver a payoff hard enough to justify its runtime, too much like what came before it without offering anything new.
In fact, many of these songs are a little too long, a bit short on melodic ideas and catharsis via hook or bliss-out to make up for it. But, at the same time, there’s always something to sink our teeth into, moments that make the growing pains forgivable. On the slow-burning title track it’s the muted trumpet solo that serves as the song’s bridge, and the pedal steel, which floats in and out at only the most opportune moments; on “Alright,” it’s the way the tempo and arrangement suddenly shift completely two-thirds of the way through.
White’s best work is saved for the EP’s end. “Substance” and “Carolina” are triumphs of production. The stereo pans that frame electric guitars around each of Owens’ lines, the dynamic percussion, as well as the surprising female backing vocals at the end (another nod to Mr. Richman) elevate the former into one of the stronger songs here. The latter, a song the band’s been playing since at least late 2008, is another beast entirely. “Carolina” is almost eight minutes long and spends upwards of half its time building to only a couple of melodic lines, albeit ones that pay off so expansively and indulgently. White makes the song’s guitars sound gorgeously thick, bolstered by pedal steel and the restraint necessary to cut everything off when Owens finally delivers the pre-chorus, making the chorus itself weigh ten tons more.
As a whole it’s hard to tell where, exactly, Girls are headed. This EP sounds, in many ways, like a showcase of new equipment and technology, proof that White just might be one of the best pop producers working right now. However, the songs might be too cerebral, lacking the brevity, structural simplicity, and dare I say petulance that made “Lust For Life” so easy to fall so hard for. When “Hellhole Ratrace” was the only song like it, its explosive finale was anomalous, a killer end to the album’s A-side. “Carolina” pushes for something similar, but is diminished by the sprawl of everything preceding it. I’m still hugely excited for this band, but I can only hope that their forthcoming second album uses all of their newfound strengths in a way that doesn’t necessarily push their old ones so far to the wayside.