Second Look: Girls – Broken Dreams Club

What hasn’t already been said about Girls? Maybe that’s not a fair question: their discography — two albums, one EP, and a few singles — is quite small. But what a discography. Their debut, 2009’s Album, stood out in a year that included the likes of Bitte Orca and Merriweather Post Pavilion. The record was indebted to decades of influences but sounded wholly original, thanks to Christopher Owens’ soft yet painful voice and vulnerable lyrics. Together with Chet “JR” White, who doubled as the band’s producer and bassist, it’s obvious why Girls evoked such strong emotions from their fans.

Thanks to a successful tour for Album, Girls were able to realize, as intended, the follow-up: the Broken Dreams Club EP, which turns 10 today. The announcement of the release came in fall 2010, via a handwritten letter penned by Owens in which he thanked fans for their support, and signified that this EP was a “LETTER OF INTENT” and “A SNAPSHOT OF THE HORIZON!”

Across the release’s six songs, Girls embraced new instrumentation and expanded on their genre experimentations. Yet significantly, the EP also maintained the hazy, dreamlike atmosphere of its predecessor. As a result, Girls overcame the thorniest of post-debut dilemmas: giving listeners more of the same, but differently.

Opener “Oh So Protective One” marks this leap in real-time. Within seconds, horn lines arranged by JR swoop in and drive the song’s energy. “Oh little girl, you just don’t know / About the weight that you carry in your soul,” Owen begins (another departure from the self-confessional first words heard on Album: “I wish I had a boyfriend”). He’s talking to a girl who’s misunderstood by those around her. Owens never says it, but he’s the only one there for her – he’s the oh so protective one. The song occupies the 1950s aesthetics explored at times on Album, but the horns add another layer of emotional resonance, as if they’re inviting listeners to dance away their pain.

Will they or won’t they? There’s reason to believe she and Owens won’t; the EP is named Broken Dreams Club, after all. Across its 30-minute runtime, the sources of broken dreams come in several forms; drug addiction (“Substance”), mental instability (“Alright”), and paralyzing disillusionment (“Broken Dreams Club”). Like most of Girls’ catalog, the content is heavy and dark, at times depressing. Nevertheless, fans never let go.

Why was this so? Their brilliant music, for starters. What was incredible wasn’t Girls’ constant genre-blending, it was that their batting average was so fucking high. “Alright” is carried by JR’s grooving bass and Garett Goddard’s punchy drumming that sounds like he’s kicking up dirt. Here, Owens displays his mastery of deception; like on so much of Album, the song’s atmosphere hides the fit of confusion he’s actually in. “All this back and forth / It’s driving me completely insane,” he sings. The track’s second half of the song turns into a jazz session, where female vocals coo over freestyling horns and loose yet commanding percussion. On Album, Owens’ internal hell was described through genres as varied as bubblegum pop, surf rock, and shoegaze. That he found new ways to express himself on Broken Dreams Club isn’t only a testament to his songwriting, but to the universality of personal struggle. 

Still, Owens pushed to look beyond himself on the EP’s title track. Here, he’s quietly running off all the ways he’s sad until he arrives at an epiphany: “I just want to get high / but everything keeps bringing me down.” Everything is the key, as the lyrics turn toward larger issues: “There’s still so many people poor / Can’t get my head around this war / all of this senselessness.” Yet despite this insight, the song isn’t perfect. Unlike on the opening track, the horns here come across as sappy, even indulgent. It’s the closest Owens ever comes to letting listeners feel sorry for him.

The EP’s penultimate track, “Substance”, is the more successful slow-burner. The lyrics’ weight is unmistakable: Owens is offering drugs as a solution to creative frustration and an escape from the pain of reality (he’s openly admitted his battles with drug addiction). The first verse is nothing save Owens’ voice and a gentle guitar with slight reverb, perhaps a reflection of how drug experimentation seems innocent enough to first-timers. The song moves into surf-rock territory — JR’s bass particularly pronounced throughout — though with deliberate elevations such as an effectively shared chorus with female vocalist Dee Dee, aka Kristin Gundred of Kristin Control and Dum Dum Girls.

This brings listeners to the EP’s closer — the masterpiece “Carolina”. The track opens with an air of twisted country-tinged psychedelia, something that could soundtrack the start of a bad acid trip. Piano flourishes are sprinkled throughout, and slowly the percussion rolls in. By the time listeners hear JR’s bass and Owens’ first words, the track has created a chilling atmosphere evoking exile, maybe even abandonment.

“Get the reaction / Get it right now,” Owens says to the girl with him, among other directives, trying to help her realize he’s offering a way out. He shifts his tone by the chorus, instead turning to the most sincere of offerings: “Take you away, I’m gonna carry you home to Carolina / Away to southern Carolina / And then I’ll never let you go.” “Carolina” builds and builds until collapsing into a passionate guitar solo that equal parts mournful and hopeful. Like the best of short stories, this ending is unexpected yet inevitable.

“Carolina” is perhaps the best example on this EP — and one of the best across their catalog — of what made Girls such an interesting band. Play a track to people familiar with the last half-century of music and each ‘sounds like’ response could yield something different yet entirely valid. The quiet backing vocals — “do run run run” — on the track’s chorus recall 60s girls groups; the ominous opening two and a half minutes evoke mid-1970s Pink Floyd (an avenue further explored on 2011’s Father, Son, Holy Ghost).

Like Album in 2009, Broken Dreams Club was released in 2010 following a string of outstanding indie releases (Halcyon Digest and Public Strain were alone released hardly two months before). Only 10 years have passed, but that era feels so much further away. This was compounded by the sudden and untimely death of JR this October. It’s a sobering reality as the years roll on and music lovers age with them; the chance of a Girls reunion was never very likely – now, it’s an impossibility.

Nevertheless, this doesn’t take away from the fact that in just two years, Girls established a legacy as one of the strongest indie rock bands of their generation. On Broken Dreams Club, Owens affirmed that, for all his lamentations on lost loves and hopeless futures, he could still envision a life where things could be better. Fans understood this, and will ensure their music lives on through the changing eras, always coming up with plenty more to say.