Better make it strong

Sometime in the late 90’s or early 2000’s, I became seriously jaded with the current rock and alternative scene. The radio stations were filled with testosterone-fueled rap-rock and quasi-metal from artists like Rage Against the Machine and P.O.D. or over-sexualized (and often scantily-dressed) pop stars like Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez. What was a chubby, geeky girl with rocking aspirations to do? Well, in this case she turned to the classic rock of groups like Rush, Led Zeppelin, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, with some Joan Jett, Pat Benetar, and The Pretenders thrown in for good measure. It took me some time to figure out what was wrong, but what I was really craving in those days was some strong female role models who could run with the big boys of rock and punk. Not that the musical terrain of classic rock was littered with such women, but it filled the void in ways that the mainstream music industry of the day wasn’t even interested in acknowledging, let alone addressing. But much to the joy of my music-obsessed heart, things have changed for the better. The Internet and the Long Tail Effect have irrevocably leveled the playing field for both better and for worse. And I for one am reveling in the myriad of choices parading through my headphones.
In my constant quest to make up for lost time, I have had another eureka moment. This time it is Dum Dum Girl’s sophomore offering, Only in Dreams, which would undoubtedly have done my poor seventeen-year-old heart good. What started as the solo project of Grand Ole Party’s drummer/singer Kristen Gundred, who goes by the stage name Dee Dee, has blossomed into an amazing 1960′ style California pop girl band with a real rocking edge. Seemingly part of a wider 60’s inspired West Coast wave, including the likes of Best Coast and Fitz and the Tantrums, Dum Dum Girls presents a highly polished sound featuring amazing production values, sophisticated lyrics, and an underlying resonance that recalls that old Wall of Sound thing Phil Spector seemed to like so much. But while their sound and Dee Dee’s velvety voice are unmistakably influenced by some of the greats, among them The Ronettes, Patti Smith, and Siouxsie and the Banshees, there is so much more here. There are the layered vocal harmonies of 80’s New Wavers like The Bangles and the playfulness of The Go-Gos. There are the psychedelic leanings of California’s Paisley Underground movement and the echoing guitars of Mazzy Star. And there are the rich vocals of singers of substance like Neko Case, Kate Bush, and Debbie Harry.
But most importantly, there is a verve and a cohesion that make this album incredibly hard to turn off. The subject matter mainly explores the crippling loneliness that results from long-distance relationships and lost lovers. But even in the most melancholy songs the jangling guitars, simple beats, and exuberant bass–along with the strategic use of oohs, aahs, and whoa-oh-ohs–all work to keep the overall atmosphere from dragging the listener down. And Dee Dee’s lyrics display a striking inner-strength and backbone that is flat-out admirable.
The first single off the album is the ultra melodic Bedroom Eyes. I literally snapped to attention the very first time I heard it. I automatically loved it and was singing along with the chorus before the song even ended. I had such a strong reaction that when I finally had the chance to buy the album, I balked. I suddenly found myself walking up and down the record store aisles with it in my hand, putting it back, picking it up again, and wavering so much about whether I should buy it that I finally decided that this was my sign. Maybe I was afraid the rest of the album wouldn’t stand up to the single? Maybe the shadowy double-exposed album cover creeped me out? I don’t know, but either way I am now eternally grateful that I put that money down on the counter. The video can literally be summed up in three words: multicolored plastic sex. Throughout it the band members sport super short skirts, blank expressions, and stylized make-up that walks the line between the uncanny valley and the rest of reality. And there is a unique twist on the traditional stage performance video with the bright and slightly unsettling kaleidoscope effect.
Taking a left turn from the feminine despair of Bedroom Eyes is the feminist declaration of Just a creep, which puts the riot grrrl attitude front and center. Yet another song worthy of my ever-expanding list of cheerful fuck-off songs, this song positively screams to me of Nancy Sinatra and her iconic 1966 hit These Boots Were Made For Walking. Who takes shit from overbearing boys? Not this chick!
With 80’s New Wave harmonies in the chorus, an almost alternative country cadence in the verses, and a non-stop beat throughout, Heartbeat is a buoyant call for serenity in a life that is no longer fully under the singer’s control. She’s been used and abused and is now walking along the precipice between moving on and giving up. The choice has yet to be made, but the tension hangs in the air like a thunderstorm waiting to break.
And the piece de resistance is the unexpected masterpiece that is Coming Down. The most melancholy song of the album by far, it is slow, measured, soul-crushing, and so painfully beautiful that you can’t help but listen with respect. The connection to Mazzy Star’s epic Fade Into You can not be denied, but while it rightly pays homage to that song, it also breaks its own path through the musical landscape. The climax in particular is truly something to behold and in this live version recorded for Sirius XMU, you get a taste of how talented this band really is. If you don’t listen to anything else from this band, you must listen to this! Trust me.
I may have had my doubts, but this album strode right up to the impossibly high bar I set for it and stepped over it like it wasn’t even there. I am smitten and look forward to hearing more good things from the Dum Dum Girls in the future.
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2 responses to “Better make it strong

  1. You know, the first thing I thought when I saw the Bedroom Eyes video was “Addicted to Love”. Hard to imagine that it is not a conscious play on the 80’s silly plastic glamour…

    • Hmm… You might be right. I think it takes the plastic to a greater extreme though. Without Robert Palmer to counter balance, it just crosses the line into off-putting. Still love the song though.

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