Music: Dum Dum pleasures
Free Press Music Columnist
There is enormous beauty in noise to those who know how to listen.
As in the old saw about how to sculpt an elephant (“First, get a big block of marble, then chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant”), the secret to a trained ear is to hear the harmonics buried in the feedback — that is, to not hear everything that doesn’t sound like beauty.
“Too True,” the new full-length album from the Dum Dum Girls, is a very noisy album, layered in fat, slappy reverb and the squall of guitar feedback. But it is also a deliriously beautiful record, one which will slit you open and burrow subcutaneously into you on first or second listen. The album represents both a furtherance of the musical blueprint the Dum Dum Girls have been following since lead singer and songwriter Dee Dee Penny cut her first single under the group aegis in 2008, and a radical departure in the sense that it reflects Penny’s new commitment to pop craft and a move away from the angsty subject matter of earlier Dum Dum Girls albums. It is, as they say, a watershed album.
I should probably qualify that assertion that the band is “moving away from their previous angsty subject matter.” There’s still plenty of sturm und drang sturming und dranging through Penny’s lyrics, but the sense of unsettledness has matured from the mopey, fatalistic songs of the band’s 2010 debut, “I Will Be,” and the death-and depression-drenched lyrics found on their sophomore effort, 2011’s “Only in Dreams.”
Penny (who was born Kristin Gundred, and whose adopted forename is not a reference to the Ramones’ bassist but instead a tribute to her late mother) started recording the new album in November 2012, but had to quit the sessions prematurely when it was discovered she had developed vocal nodes while on tour supporting “Only in Dreams.”
During the forced hiatus, the songwriter (who, by her own admission, was a bookworm as a teenager) turned to the writings of Rimbaud, Rilke, Baudelaire, Plath and other like-minded poets and authors, and their influence can be heard in the songs of “Too True.” (In fact, one catchy track is entitled “Rimbaud Eyes.”)
“Too True” marks Penny’s fifth collaboration with producer Richard Gottehrer, the man who wrote “My Boyfriend’s Back” more than half a century ago, and a technician who has shown a deft understanding of how to place a female singer on classic albums by Blondie, the Go-Gos and Joan Armatrading. It is also the fourth time Penny has worked with Sune Rose Wagner, the mastermind of the similarly noisy Raveonettes, who plays much of the music heard on the new Dum Dum Girls album. Together, Penny, Gottehrer and Wagner have honed the fuzz attack into a more focused and palatable musical buffet.
When they subtract the Suicide-like drum machine for the album’s emotional high point, the sweet and melancholy final track, “Trouble Is My Name,” the effect is stunningly simple and simply stunning.
The Dum Dum Girls have always enjoyed critical acclaim, but “Too True” may be the album which pushes them from the fringes straight into the heart of the zeitgeist. If you think you have the ear to find ethereal beauty in the clang and peal of guitar and drum noise, you’ll want to sample the smart, smart pleasures of the Dum Dum Girls.
Craven Lovelace is the producer of the Notes Blog & Podcast at http://cravenlovelace.com/notesblog. He also writes about popular culture at the Cravenomena blog: http://cravenlovelace.com/cravenblog. You may find him on Facebook as well.
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