Concert + Album Review: Dum Dum Girls “Too True” Album Release Show at Mercury Lounge: January 30, 2014
My little baby is all growns up.
I can’t seem to get that classic line from the final scene in Swingers out of my head (perhaps because I just read this great oral history of the making of the movie) when thinking about the new album from the Dum Dum Girls, Too True. Fans like me have had a chance to listen to the first two singles from the album, “Lost Boys and Girls Club” and “Rimbaud Eyes“, and now the full record has been released (this past Tuesday) and the DDGs had their album release show at New York City’s Mercury Lounge last night. After the show, I listened to the new record – the band’s third – in its entirety to see if my initial impressions match up with the reviewers consensus. That is, are the Dum Dum Girls all grown up? The answer is a resounding yes, though I don’t quite know how I feel about that.
I first encountered Dum Dum Girls over 3 years ago when they were the first opening band (before Beach House) at a Vampire Weekend show at Radio City Music Hall. Getting to the show so early, for a completely unknown band at the time, I was one of only a handful of people in their seats as the girls played their brief set. Though the setting was terrible for the garage rockers, the opportunity they got that night was worth it as they gained at least one fan. Their dark and mysterious aura, along with their kick-ass guitars, was enough to get me to pick up their debut album, I Will Be. It wasn’t an easy listen at first. I Will Be is a low-fi, distortion heavy record. The DDGs started out as a bedroom recording project of lead singer Dee Dee Penny, and I Will Be comes off sounding just like that, an obstacle that most albums can’t overcome. But like another Sub Pop release 20 years prior, I recognized a really good record beneath the low-fi roughage. The thing with low-fi is, if a band can pull it off then the music actually has an extra dimension to it – a realness – that can’t be simulated any other way. I Will Be had a lot of rough edges, but those served to compliment rather than bring down the catchy songs. I could listen to “Bhang, Bhang, I’m a Burnout” and “Jail La La” and never get tired of them.
Since then the band has been cleaning up its sound, first with its second LP Only in Dreams and then with a few EPs, He Gets Me High and End of Daze. Those records were all a perfect mix of the early rough Dum Dum Girls edge and a more polished, possibly even sweeter sound. This has a lot to do with the influence of the band’s producer, Richard Gottehrer (Blondie, the Go-Go’s), whom Dee Dee considers an indispensable partner. With Too True the band may have completed its transformation into an indie pop outfit. As Rolling Stone notes in its review, “Gottehrer helped Dee Dee open up her sound from scrappy garage rock to the glossy, Eighties-tinged guitar pop.”
While on Too True the band retains its original dark and gloomy mystique, words critics use to describe the new album now include “slickening“, “additional polish“, “sleek and sophisticated“, “spectral“, and my least-favorite, “glossy.” Stephen Thompson of NPR states that Too True “split[s] the difference between the guitar-fueled rumble of a ’60s basement and the synth-friendly shimmer of an ’80s studio.” No one would have used any of those words to describe I Will Be. Like I said, my little baby is all growns up.
At Mercury Lounge, the four girls (plus a boy added to play second guitar) stayed true to their new sound. The show got off to a rough start as the band was having technical problems with their equipment that took around 15 minutes of sound-checking to resolve. Consistent with the sound of the new Dum Dum Girls, they opened with a semi-ballad, the relatively soft (but fantastic) “Bedroom Eyes“, rather than a more upbeat number. The set was not very long and featured a mix of old and new, but of the “older” music they ignored nearly all of I Will Be. They didn’t play either “Bhang, Bhang, I’m a Burnout” nor “Jail La La“, as neither would have fit in with this particular show.
Just looking at the band one would think that nothing had changed. Dee Dee was dressed to tease in all black and bright red lipstick. Jules was 100% full on goth on guitar. My girlfriend Malia James* was stunning in all black and all smiles. Sandy as always rocked the drums hard. Between songs Dee Dee took sips of whiskey as she noted we’d all need whiskey to get through this night. Looks can be deceiving though. Dee Dee was nursing a bad cold and was coming off a performance the night before in LA, a cross-country flight and an appearance on Letterman earlier that day. The whiskey wasn’t her being bad-ass; it was a cold remedy.
On the other hand, seeing the band live, perhaps in part because we were in this notorious venue and because of the conditions (illness, travel circumstances and technical issues), the impression that I came away with wasn’t “polished.” At one point Dee Dee apologized for the chaotic show, saying that it was fitting for the chaotic new record. The funny thing is, I don’t find the new album chaotic at all. Yes, the live show certainly was. But on a first listen, despite what Dee Dee or Stephen Thompson says, the album is anything but chaotic; it’s just far more synth-friendly than guitar-fueled. The live show though struck the right balance.
Fittingly, when the DDGs came out for their one-song encore, it was another ballad, the dreamy “Lord Knows“. I’m not sure how I feel yet about this new and improved Dum Dum Girls. On the one hand Too True sounds a lot like it could be from another band that I love, Metric. On the other hand, I already have a band that I love that sounds like Metric. (Hint: It’s Metric.) I’m already missing the garage rock girls that blew my mind three years ago. Kids today, they grow up so fast.
Dum Dum Girls – Lost Boys and Girls Club