Not many young indie bands have created their own mythology in so short a time as Girls have. From their out-of-nowhere success to stories of singer Christopher Owens’ early life in a religious cult and as a gutterpunk in Amarillo to the NSFW porn collaborations, Girls have conjured up an aura of WTF? mystery that keeps you guessing about who these guys are and what they’re about: Are they oldies-loving pop traditionalists or ahead-of-the-curve hipsters? Are they free-love, free-drugs neo-hippies or sweet, sensitive indies, lust-for-life hedonists or incurable romantics? Or are they postmodern ironists of the first order, making music with feeling whether or not you’re sure that their aching sentimentality is in quotation marks? Even when you get the sense from their songs that Owens and Chet “J.R.” White have been around the block more than a few times, their music will still convince you that each time they fall in love or have their hearts broken, it’s for the first and only time.
But the main reason for their growing mystique is, of course, the music: The one thing you can count on with Girls is consistently captivating pop songs that hearken back to the classics by putting a new twist on ’em. And on the Broken Dreams Club EP, the San Francisco band has continued to hone and finetune its already formidable craft, building on the pop instincts of its 2009 debut Album by expanding its palette in terms of more ambitious compositions and a bolder production. Giving more shape and depth to their intuitive melodies, Girls fully flesh out each and every track on this six-song offering so you hardly notice that it’s actually not a proper full-length. Something in between cutting-edge indie retro and a bizarro outtake from that Roy Orbison and Friends PBS special, the opener “Oh So Protective One” sets the tone for much of what’s to follow, taking the group’s earlier throwback pop formula and embellishing it with subtly orchestrated touches like White’s loungey guitar flourishes and some EZ-listening horns. And when you hear Owens tenderly crooning about puppy-love obsessions, the song has a timeless feel to it, its bedroom confessions expressing pure yearning and melancholy that rings as true today as they do to the earlier eras they bring to mind.
Indeed, Girls have a knack for creating songs that convey a sense of nostalgia that still don’t quite sound like what’s come before. The title track, for instance, comes off like a country tearjerker from an alternate universe, done up with genuine frills like twangy guitar and haunting organ, only that there’s something spacey and otherworldly about it. Matching the ever developing songwriting is Owens’ voice, which is less hyperactive and all-over-the-place than before: There’s something intangible in his vocals that tells you the band isn’t putting on airs, as he taps into something authentic that echoes the ghosts of rock’s past. You can hear how everything comes together on the up-tempo single “Heartbreaker”, on which Owens’ opening lines tell you all you need to know about his band’s maturing approach: “When I look in the mirror now / I’m not as young as used to be.” When Owens reaches for a falsetto as White strums away with a sense of purpose, Girls refine the histrionics and over-the-top qualities from their debut into something that possesses drama without being melodramatic.
Most impressive in this strong, complete set of songs is the epic coda “Carolina”, a cut-and-paste patchwork of styles and sounds, just with all the seams hidden. A pastiche of far-flung references from space rock to indie-pop to golden oldies, “Carolina” is a sprawling, multi-part piece that recalls and one-ups Girls’ first breakout number, “Hellhole Ratrace”: Starting with a long instrumental section that evokes a dark sense of introspection from the unlikely but complementary parts of fuzzed-out feedback, stray piano tinkling, synth sound effects, bottom-heavy beats, and pedal steel, Owens’ indomitable spirit eventually finds its way through the imposing soundscape when he gets as achingly romantic as he ever has, sweetly singing, “I’m going to pick you up, baby / Throw you over my shoulder / Take you away / I’m going to carry you home / To Carolina.” The song swells with unadulterated feeling to girl-groupy “Do-run-run-run” backing vocals that are anything but out of place next to, of all things, the sweet home Carolina boogie jam that closes out the number. While it might be hard to figure out how it all fits together, Girls find some way to make everything seem not just copacetic, but natural and obvious.
What Girls prove more convincingly than ever on Broken Dreams Club is that sometimes a little stylistic schizophrenia can actually go a long way in shaping a singular artistic vision. So just how Owens and White mix-and-match forms and make clichés not sound like clichés might be a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma — like Girls themselves — but all you really need to know is that their formula works, however it does.