Always noted for their maturity at such a young age, Ely’s Holden Girls have had something of an albatross when it comes to their music. Starting out at 17, “amazing for a group so young” became a common refrain in any publicity it generated – something I imagine would start to grate after awhile. Their daydream-y shoegaze comes from an understanding of atmosphere and texture a lot of 30-somethings struggle with, and to be met with wonder at what you’ll sound like when you’re a Real Adult could be seen as just a little patronizing.
There’s no such disclaimer on Real Doubt, the band’s second EP; nor is there anything particularly pastoral about it. A few years later and Holden Girls have grown up – for real this time – and they return with a much darker set of songs. The record is short, and each track is steeped in a rich atmosphere that works to form a cohesive whole.
Any record that opens with a title track is a record with intent, and so it is here. Reverb-drenched guitars usher in a slow-building soundscape, first jazz-like drumming then piano & additional guitars weave their way into the mix until the song’s overture reaches its summit. The biggest surprise is the violins, appearing here courtesy of Fuzzy Lights’ Rachel Watkins. It’s all a bit epic, perhaps reminiscent of groups like Her Name is Calla whose serene, serious music possesses a kind of apocalyptic grace. The track is understated in all the right places and when it soars it soars joylessly, one eye on the ground and conscious of the inevitable fall.
The same dismayed ecstasy pervades the rest of the record, dream pop’s post-idyllic wasteland. Vocalist Connor Browne delivers his baritone vocals with a gothic grandeur that’ll make fans of Joy Division happy, if happy is the right response – ‘Double Mind’ especially so with it’s blank-eyed reflections and regret. As the EP’s title suggests, this isn’t flippant fashion statement; the darkness here has a real viscous, swampy quality to it – the kind you wade through rather than hide in. Many elements throughout actively work against the group’s melodic ear. Cavernous guitars are the order of the day while fuzzy basslines gnaw and discordant synths sing underneath; there’s even a church organ in the last song, whose drumming powers the song to its wall-of-noise climax.
It feels like Holden Girls are more concerned with creating monuments than songs. Possibly the brightest, most hopeful moment is the violin section, recorded with Fuzzy Lights’ Rachel Watkins. It’s clear the band stretched their sound to record this – actively, deliberately. It’s the sound of a group becoming more themselves.
Similar to the first EP, it’d be hard to say this is music to get down to. Real Doubt is towering, immense; a record of such density it either envelopes you or repels you completely. It’s brevity is heart-wrenching – you can easily imagine these tracks as part of a larger, highly sculpted listen. From what I understand this is something of a swansong for Holden Girls, which is a shame considering the quality of the material here. For a group who’ve consistently exceeded expectations in their brief career, first by their “prematurely mature” sound then by the mature songcraft evidenced here, to finish just as they’re cashing in on their potential is unfortunate. Though perhaps it’s something of a blessing for the band. With Connor already knee deep in post-punk project Nervous Conditions and other members of the band reportedly regrouping, the influence and ambition evidenced here isn’t lost – they’re still young, after all. There’s time for bigger things yet.
‘Real Doubt’ is out now on Meadows Records.
Words from Wesley Freeman-Smith.