Just three weeks ago, when Girls announced the release of Broken Dreams Club, they also shared a sprawling, handwritten note penned by frontman Christopher Owens. On stationery flipped upside down, Owens scribbled enthusiastically that this EP was their (timely) way of giving thanks to listeners who’ve showered the San Francisco duo with love and support since Album, their lemons-to-lemonade debut, which arrived last September. While insisting that his band’s latest isn’t the sound of them “all grown up,” he described the six songs enclosed as a “LETTER OF INTENT,” a “SNAPSHOT OF THE HORIZON,” and a “step up” from its stunning predecessor.
Girls have grown a lot in the past year. All that time on the road together has provided them with ample opportunity to develop into a tight, fire-breathingband. That’s exactly how they sound here: serious and totally devoted to their craft, despite their image as drug-addled scabs. Album‘s handmade production values were often overlooked– bloodshot at just the right moments, polished thoughtfully in others, haunting at every turn. But this time out, bassist/producer Chet “JR” White really goes for it, letting every flourish and lick sing without sacrificing any of the strung out, open-armed spirit with which he and Owens take to updating American rock’n’roll standards. Whether it’s the whammy bar ripples on its title track, the hot flare of horns in the opener, or even the stereo panning on “Heartbreaker”, White’s work here frames and accentuates the curves of these songs in ways that elevate them all. Those, too, continue to devastate.
We know from interviews and reviews alike that Owens’ back story is big enough to swallow just about any young band. But because of the connective strength of his songwriting, it never did. Singles like “Lust for Life” and “Hellhole Ratrace” transcended and outlasted that initial ruckus: The celebration Owens spun from the sadness in them was something that could be shared, even if his past could put him at an almost alien distance. He has a natural command of his hooks and confessionals, a gift that’s only acquired more compelling shades with time. Take the clarity in his promise of “rock’n’roll, out of control” on “Substance” as just one example, or seconds later, as he coolly announces a guitar solo just before it’s set loose. They’re simple enough, but both jump right off the recording. Elsewhere, lines like those of the aforementioned title track still cut straight to marrow. Over lonesome chords and a few distant strips of pedal steel, Owens hangs his head, “I know you feel like I did, too/ And even though I’m close to you/ I can’t be what you need/ Because, you’re just as lost as me.” As a frontman, Owens has discovered a swagger that matches the deep reserves of melancholy in his voice.
This is still undeniably sad, unsettling music. On flirty opener “Thee Oh So Protective One”, Owens serenades the insecurities of a teenage girl. “He’ll never know about the times that you cried in your bedroom,” he croons. “About the times that you cried in your classroom/ About your mother or your father or the way you got your broken heart.” It’s one of several hearts breaking here, though “Heartbreaker” showcases the improvement in songwriting best, Owens and White continuing to take the love song template they adore and skew it to their liking. Everything just clicks: its simple, elegant construction, its velvety feel, the way its hopelessly lonesome vocal hook washes over Owens’ friendly chord progression. Girls may be only a few releases deep, but those chords sound like theirs alone.
And yet, as much as Broken Dreams Club feels like an improvement upon Albumboth in songwriting and production, this release is clearly about looking forward. The psychedelic haze of “Carolina” is the closest they’ve come to sonically uncapping the pills they’ve been known to romanticize. It’s a wild hybrid of a song that’s intent on stretching out, its opening layer of evil, crying guitar taking on heaps of gauze before ultimately vaulting into a rowdy, bar-band outro at about the six-and-a-half minute mark. In that same letter that promised growth and focus, Owens also said something quite striking in thanks. “All of us have something to say and give and this is what happens when we show a little interest and support in others.” If Broken Dreams Clubis indeed an honest glimpse of what’s ahead, it sounds as though Girls have much more to give.