Dum Dum Girls Break Out of Their Surf-Pop Formula -- Barely -- at Great American Music Hall
Dum Dum Girls at Great American Music Hall last night. Photo by the author, more after the jump.
Dum Dum Girls
Oct. 4, 2011
Great American Music Hall
Better than: Best Coast -- sometimes, anyway.
The problem with reverb-drenched, girl-group-derived, shoegaze-descended guitar pop is that it's as limited as a vegan's view of bacon. You get a monolithic merseybeat, two or three spanky chords, an off-the-shelf chorus melody, and little else. The most interesting variables left are lyrical content (don't get your hopes up) and the band's outfits.
While a few of these songs go down fine -- sometimes more than fine -- after a while, the formula turns into a grind. The persistent drumbeat becomes an unheard piece of sonic furniture. The memory of one chorus hook fades into the last. The constant tempo gets to be as exciting as a slab of plain tofu.
Similar to Best Coast, Dum Dum Girls play mostly surf-gaze guitar pop, and they do it about as well as anyone around. But it shouldn't be surprising that last night at Great American Music Hall, Dum Dum Girls were at their best when they weren't doing what it is they mainly do.
We got 16 songs -- all of them blessed by figurehead Dee Dee Penny's smooth, lush vocals, whose low placement in the house mix masked how powerful her voice is. Most of these tunes were standard fare, built according to the specifications above. But crucially, Dum Dum Girls excel at writing pop lyrics -- Penny aims to convey more than a stoner's simple longing -- and at visuals: The band members strode onstage dressed in black boots, black tights, black skirts, and black tops, several of which showed black bras underneath. (Admittedly, those stockings, skirts, and heels lent a verticality to their silhouettes that bordered on the absurd, but whatever.)
Newer songs like "Bedroom Eyes" and "Always Looking" also squeeze every possible drop of emotion out of what are standard pop-rock melodies. But you can do that when you have a voice like Penny's. Unfortunately, even her luscious larynx couldn't fight off the mind-numbing qualities of formulaic 50-year-old pop. So even though the band saved some of its best songs ("He Gets Me High," "Teardrops On My Pillow," the Smiths cover "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out") for the second half of the set, the potency of their charms had long since worn off. After about seven uptempo rockers, ladies, they really all sound the same.
Yet all was not lost. The show's saving grace came at the very end, when Dum Dum Girls performed the haunting, epic (six-plus-minute) ballad, "Coming Down," as their encore. "Coming Down" is maybe this band's best song so far -- it's repetitive and reverb-drenched, but it runs at the pace of a dirge and lets Dee Dee stretch out of her voice. Really stretch out her voice in fact -- on the new album Only In Dreams, she twice hits a note at the risky top of her range, giving the song a soaring climax. To our surprise, she opened her jaws wide and aimed for the high note last night. Amazingly, she hit it both times, eliciting huge cheers from the dazzled crowd. It was easily the highlight of the show.
That moment also made the position (you might say predicament) of this band clear: Dum Dum Girls are very good at their limited formula, but -- unlike some of their similarly styled peers -- they're also good enough to break away from it.
Opener: Missed the first opener, Colleen Green, but got there just in time to see Crocodiles, the band of Dee Dee's husband, Brandon Welchez. Unfortunately, Crocodiles issue retro shoegaze-pop that's about as formulaic as Dum Dum Girls can be, but with even less variation. I found the sunglassed Welchez a supremely annoying stage presence, like watching a 15-year-old at a high school talent show act like what he imagined a rock star should be. But his band played "I Wanna Kill," off its 2009 debut Summer of Hate, which I enjoyed.
By the way: Dee Dee (real name: Kristen Gundred) is a Bay Area native. "I'm from here, this is my favorite venue," she said midway through the set. "It's an honor to be back home."
Seen in the audience: Hüsker Dü frontman/DJ/writer/gay icon Bob Mould. He was hailing a taxi in the rain after the show.
Random notebook dump: Who has an easier job in Dum Dum Girls: the bassist or the drummer?
Bhang Bhang, I'm a Burnout
I Will Be
Rest of Our Lives
It Only Takes
Hold Your Hand
Teardrops On My Pillow
He Gets Me High
In My Head
Jail La La
There Is A Light That Never Goes Out