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Broken Dreams Club Alex Denney , November 29th, 2010 06:48

It takes a special sort of guy to wander off-script during a song and suddenly announce, “guitar solo — come on!” without sounding like a total wazzock. And yet that’s exactly what Girls frontman Christopher Owens does on ‘Substance’, a track from his band’s new EP billed as a ‘snapshot of the horizon’.

Actually the song is the weakest on a surprisingly focused set from the San Fran outfit — comprised principally of Owens and Chet ‘JR’ White, but now expanded to a five-piece — and is one example of how their canon-aspiring pop can come off as tediously trad without due attention. But such are the perils of being a classicist in 2010, and it’s a line Girls seem to be toeing increasingly well.

For all the hype, their debut Album was an only a sporadically inspired affair. There’s a special reason for Owens’ 60s popophilia, of course ¬— he was raised as part of a bad-news hippy cult called Children of God — but unfortunately whatever sad reservoirs of yearning and regret he was drawing from for the record, it tended not to matter when his love of catchy melodies and Aquarian sounds meant sounding like a stoner approximation of the arse end of Britpop, as did tracks like ‘Darling’ and ‘Laura’. But of course, moments suggested a smart and unusually direct songwriter in Owens, a man who rightly suggested that, with music, “it's not about who can be the smartest, it's about who can not only be the most genuine, but be the most simple in a way.” Broken Dreams Club further hones that template. ‘Thee Oh So Protective’ sounds like a mariachi ‘Dream Lover’ sung by Elvis Costello, weirdly the kind of thing Bradford Cox has been aiming at of late — only arguably Girls nail it better. Much has been made of the Costello reference already, but we needn’t worry too much about Owens becoming a mannerist bore — his choice of drugs is better, for one, and his voice has an altogether looser, sadder feel than the former’s preening discontent.

The title track’s countrified lope brings to mind another self-absorbed troubadour in Conor Oberst (more specifically with his¬ Lifted-era, Neil Young-aping hat on), although in truth Owens has a way of framing his dissatisfactions in a way that’s a lot less hark-at-me analytical than Oberst. “Even though I'm close to you, I can't be what you need / you're just as lost as me” is about as close as Girls get to diagnosing their complaint, but Owens beats a hasty retreat into the consoling fog of incomprehension: “I just want to get high, but everyone keeps bringing me down”.

‘Alright’ has the snake-hipped propulsion of early REM or The Smiths and comes beautifully framed by breviloquent solo and lazy smudges of brass. ‘Heartbreaker’’s a deceptively casual acoustic strum; warm and familiar as a girlfriend padding about barefoot in one of your old sweaters. Lyrically Owens leaves the listener in no doubt that he’s stung by the memory of such images: “When I said that I loved you honey / I knew that you would break my heart”. Again, though, he’s content to simply bask in the feeling for the pleasure of it, never stooping to waste time pinning fancy names on his sadness – leave that to the armchair shrinks like Conor and Elvis. Rather, Girls’ music offers a friendly arm slung round your neck.

Or at least, it does until closing track ‘Carolina’: a completely unexpected, shoegazey track clocking in at nearly eight minutes, it simultaneously conveys epic landscape intensity and the dread intimacy of a dislocated voice under the duvet. After a brilliantly sinister, six-minutes exposition the storm clouds evaporate and the band deploys its final sleight of hand, a guitar-jam coda that sounds like... Shed Seven. Which is a bit of a mood killer, obviously, but you still end up with the sneaky feeling that Girls are getting there — and it’s worth remembering it takes brains to keep it this simple, stupid.