Dum Dum Girls
Music Hall of Williamsburg,
7 Feb 2012
(with Punks on Mars and Widowspeak)
The Dum Dum Girls are a fuzz pop quartet from sunny California, named after both Iggy Pop’s “Dum Dum Boys” as well as The Vaselines Dum Dum album. To give further clues as to where their musical loyalties lie, lead vocalist and songwriter Kristen Gundred goes by the stage name Dee Dee Penny. They are also infatuated with the 60’s, and they wear the dark Cleopatra eye makeup of the Ronettes, the coordinated outfits and matching fringes of the Shangri-La’s. They may have a hankering for the past, but they are far from just another retro pop act, with a determined focus on progression and exploring new directions, putting enormous energies into carving out their own identity as gifted songwriters.
Their latest album Only In Dreams already shows a dramatic shift in the band’s aesthetic, Dee Dee’s heavily reverbed hazy purr and the group’s velvety, echo saturated drone traded in for pristinely produced sugar coated harmonies, everything crystal clear and buffed to an immaculate shine. The garage-y clatter and youthful emotions of first album I will Be are discarded for assured performances and mature lyrical themes of sadness and loss (Dee Dee’s mother died of brain cancer in late 2010, and her portrait adorns both album sleeves in tribute).
Their critics might say this new found clarity exposes a band restricted by simple song structures, relying on derivative catchy choruses without any real identifiable hooks. While it took me a while to warm to Only In Dreams, I soon grew to enjoy the twangy surf guitar licks, the swaggering, expressive vibrato of Dee Dee’s vocals, no longer self-conscious and buried under a sludgy wall of noise. Most striking about the record is the deeply heartfelt and painfully earnest lyrics, with Dee Dee singing about losing her mother. On the moving “Hold Your Hand” she croons “From dreams you wake to shock to find it’s true/And you’d do anything to bring her back”. Rarely has that level of wrenching honesty been put forth in such a sweet pop song, and I hope the record has been a cathartic experience for Dee Dee to cope with her grief.
Tonight in Brooklyn, New York, on the first big night of the tour, they have traded in some of the vintage black for a monochromatic wardrobe scheme, the girls sporting short white dresses over their traditional patterned tights – puff sleeve lacy numbers cinched in with black waist belts, and a flowing draped dress top for Dee Dee that whirls and whooshes around her, Marilyn starlet style.
Tall redheaded bassist Bambi’s recent departure (played her last show with the band in Auckland, New Zealand in early January as she is off to write a TV show) ushered in the live debut of new recruit Malia James of Marnie Stern and The Black Ryder fame. She certainly does nothing to hurt the band’s image with her coolly aloof posturing and model good looks, and she competently filled the gap without a real noticeable disruption of the band dynamic. Perhaps in time she will grow into her role even more.
They opened the show with the grinding guitar squall of “He Gets Me High”, an ideal opener, it’s rough, lumbering rhythm offset by the sweet gauzy shine of the girl’s vocal harmonies. Then they propel into early single “Catholicked”, about breaking away from a religious upbringing. Fast, echo-drenched dreamy guitars recalling The Jesus and Mary Chain, with a punky rapid fire vocal that even sneaks in a Patti Smith lyric.
From there they revisit the title track of 2010’s I Will Be, Sandy’s thump-thump drumming like a train chugging along the tracks and Dee Dee’s face twisted with the effort of the emotive vocal refrain.
Next is the slow, smouldering “Rest of Our Lives”, a beautiful swaying love ballad written in Dee Dee’s youth and infused with real burning adolescent passion, “Your eyes can see me, they always have, before you knew me, I dreamt of them…”
They follow up with “Hold Your Hand” from Only In Dreams, the wavering trill of Dee Dee’s voice here resembling Chrissie Hynde or Grace Slick but with a more nuanced sadness and sensitivity as she sings about being by her mother’s bedside during her final moments.
The pace is tightened again by delinquent anthem and crowd favourite “Bhang Bhang, I’m a Burnout”, dedicated to Dee Dee’s niece on her 20th birthday as she’s “Almost old enough to be a burn out.” The momentum is driven forward by the racing heart beats of Sandy’s drums, while a sinuous guitar line from Jules weaves in and out over an infectiously joyful 60’s girl group sing-song harmony, no wonder the audience are now at their most animated.
The interaction is brief, a smile and a quick thanks before moving onto “Heartbeat (Take It Away)”, a featherweight sugary tune injected with c86 guitar jangle and hand-clap style percussion. What you notice most is Dee Dee’s bewitching, soulful voice – no longer the icy, detached persona, standing stock still and static from stage fright. There is a confidence and a warmth to her performance, and it seems like now she is willing to embrace being a frontwoman, the Only In Dreams material allowing her to showcase her surprisingly sophisticated vocal range, and these live renditions give the album tracks new depths that were perhaps lost among all the gloss and glamour of their official recording’s ruthlessly perfect production.
The crowd is then treated to a new song, “I Got Nothing”, and then “a very old song” , I Will Be’s “Jail La La”, a playful sing along about an uneasy stint in the slammer next to a woman “covered in shit and high as a kite”.
They then storm into the churning psychedelia of “Lavender Haze” before unleashing the uber catchy, surf riff laden “Bedroom Eyes” and leaving the stage. Moments later they return for an encore, appropriately winding things down with the exquisite ballad “Coming Down”, Dee Dee’s expression intense as she belts out a soaring “There I goooooooooooooooo….” at the end of the bridge.
Being on the far right of the stage was a disadvantage as the sound was murkier and the harmonies not as easily picked up on beneath the loud, domineering bass, but Dum Dum Girls are a very professional unit, they play well and they look the part. If they suffer at all from a lack of variation and some tunes blurring into one another it is because they play to their strengths, and when they’re good they’re masters at tapping into our pop pleasure centers, and they can only get better.