The emotional toughness of the Dum Dum Girls' 'Only in Dreams'
When locals the Dum Dum Girls first announced that a new album would be revealed in 2011, it wasn’t teased so much as forebodingly promised. “It would be pretty impossible to not write songs about death and darkness and sadness,” lead Dum Dum Girl Dee Dee said in an interview in February.
Four months earlier her mother had succumbed to brain cancer, the diagnosis of which had put a shroud over the Dum Dum Girls’ first year as a touring unit for Seattle indie label Sub Pop. Yet “Only in Dreams,” the so-called “dark” record promised by Dee Dee and released Tuesday (Sept. 27), is far more a statement of confidence than it is one of rock ’n’ roll wallowing.
Even “Coming Down,” a six-and-a-half-minute ballad about a search for clarity, is a showcase for the group’s growth. Compared with the cloudy, reverb-soaked sound of last year’s “I Will Be,” every guitar strike, lyrical strut and hand-clap-bolstered harmony is heard loud and pristine. No longer are Dee Dee’s icy vocals hesitant, detached and buried in a fuzzy mix of scrappy guitar riffs. She’s front and center throughout “Only in Dreams,” and never more so than on “Coming Down,” which sees the no-nonsense rocker graduating into an emotionally nuanced vocalist.
“I’m ready to be a singer,” said Dee Dee, whose band headlines the Troubadour on Monday. “I’m not as self-conscious as I was before. I don’t want to be a pop star by any means, but I do want to put out records where the vocals and lyrics are more discernible than they have been in the past. That’s what I spend all my energy on.”
The Dum Dum Girls last year were often mentioned hand in hand with Best Coast as one of L.A.’s most-promising acts, as both had a foot firmly planted in rock traditions. The Dum Dum Girls toughened up girl group classicism and had a look ripped from Marlon Brando’s “Wild One,” but family tragedy slowed the band’s touring ambitions and momentum.
It allowed, however, for the Dum Dum Girls to arrive as something of a new group with “Only in Dreams.” Dee Dee, who now lives in New York with her husband, recorded “I Will Be” by herself in her then-L.A. apartment. “Only in Dreams,” recorded locally at Josh Homme’s Pink Duck Studios, marks the first time the full band worked together in the studio. With Dee Dee using songwriting as part of her healing process, the act had plenty to work with.
“Writing songs that were very direct to what was going on, and listening to songs that could conjure up an emotional response, was cathartic for me,” said Dee Dee, whose real name is Kristen Gundred. “I was having trouble processing what was happening, but through these songs I was able to have some sort of outlet, and I think that was really important. The longer I had stayed out of touch with my feelings the worse my life would get.”
Co-produced by the Ravonettes’ Sune Rose Wagner and industry vet Richard Gottehrer (best-known for co-writing “My Boyfriend’s Back” and as the producer of the debut albums by both the Go-Go’s and Blondie), “Only in Dreams” ranges from the dance-party kiss-off of “Creep” to the jangly, Western-influenced garage rock of “Caught in One.”
Layered, wistful backing harmonies dominate throughout, as do passionate vocals and an assortment of fast-burning guitar tones. Album opener “Always Looking,” for instance, begins in a surf-rock rush and builds to a call-and-response sprint before emerging from a distorted bridge with a hissing guitar. The song ends as if it blew a fuse.
Perhaps, then, “Only in Dreams” will forever shed the vintage tag that has trailed the group.
“It’s a nail in the coffin for me every time we’re regarded as some sort of retro pop act,” said Dee Dee. “I think that’s crap. All music borrows and is influenced by what has come before it. It’s how you put your own spin on it that marks progression. That’s something I think about all the time. That’s why I’ve made such a point to have each release demonstrate a progression.”
Audiences may be foolish to challenge her. Though the Dum Dum Girls have placed a ballad or two in its arsenal, the group is far from softening. Harmonies may be getting sweeter, sure, but the look remains all black, and Dee Dee sings everything with an intimidating stare.
“I could never just make a pretty record,” Dee Dee said. “For me, there needs to be teeth. There needs to be a dark side -- always. Without, it just doesn’t feel right to me. That’s not to say I don’t listen to saccharine music or completely noisy stuff, but I want to toe the line. That’s when I can feel like myself.”
Photo: Drummer Sandy, bassist Bambi, ringleader Dee Dee and guitarist Jules. Credit: Lauren Dukoff / Sub Pop Records