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On the Road to Coachella, Dum Dum Girls Create Era-defying Pop Colored by Many Influences

In Music
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It’s a new album and a new start for Dee Dee Penny and her brainchild the Dum Dum Girls. Though it’s fair to say that each of her three albums has been its own departure, 2010’s I Will Be introduced the band as a more than competent low-fi act that understood its roots in ‘60s girl groups and garage rock.

Sophomore album Only in Dreams separated Dum Dum Girls, performing April 9 at the Blank Club, from the pack. It was not only richer, louder and more beautiful, but more ambitious and complex. Produced in the wake of the sudden death of Penny’s mother from cancer, the album stares unflinchingly at loss, longing and the experience of watching loved ones wasting away. The album’s genius, however, is that it uses the same conventions of ’60s teenage heartbreak songs to discuss adult loss.

On the surface Too True, the band’s latest release, is the darkest and moodiest to date. An extra guitar has been added to the mix, bringing new textures to the DDG’s previous, monolithic wall of sound, and giving it a more distinctly shoegaze and even gothic sound. But that’s just the surface. At heart it’s a warm and seductive pop album, true to DDG’s roots but open to a wider range of influences. “Are You Okay,” the emotional heart of Too True, suggests that Penny is. Having weathered a difficult time, she and the Dum Dum Girls are moving ahead.

Although DDG formed in Los Angeles and now lives in New York, Penny (born Kristen Gundred) is a Bay Area native who graduated from UC Santa Cruz, where she studied literary theory, music and German.

“I felt very much at home tucked up and away on the mountain campus,” she writes in an email interview.

“Tucked away” is how Penny likes to create. The first DDG album was written and produced in her bedroom. Too True was a similarly solitary effort—at least in the writing, which she did from her apartment and from a room in L.A.’s Chateau Marmont.

While the typical DDG metier is the sound of the mid-60s filtered through ‘70s New York punk, Too True’s touchstone is the early ’80s, mostly. On the Dum Dum Girls’ website, Penny name-checks Siouxsie Sioux, the Cure, Madonna and the Paisley Underground, but also Suede and Patty Smith. I ask her to expound on her list.

“That list was kinda tongue in cheek,” she says. “I’ve found if you don’t define your terms someone else does, most often incorrectly.”

I take that as a challenge to state my own terms. To my ear, Too True evokes 1983, that banner year for music when REM’s Murmur album was defining a new indie sound and the Cocteau Twins’ Head Over Heels invented dream pop. This was a time when post-punk gloom was widespread, when the term “goth” wasn’t yet in wide currency and music critics were describing bands like Echo and the Bunnymen and Sisters of Mercy as “neo-psychedelic.”

I ask Penny if she was explicitly thinking about the ties between ’80s alternative music and ’60s rock when she was putting together the new album.

“I don’t think I’d call my music ‘goth,’” she says. “I relate much more to that earlier neo-psychedelic term. Ultimately, I’m just making pop music and choosing to color it as I see fit, however it gets me off. I serve the song.”

Perhaps that’s a little disingenuous coming from the black-haired, black-clad songwriter whose “Evil Blossom” ends with a chorus of “Why be good? Be beautiful and sad. It’s all you’ve ever had.” And perhaps that’s an unfair characterization. A quality that raises the Dum Dum Girls above a mere revival band is that they are not slavishly locked in to any genre. Penny borrows what she needs, and always serves the song, just as she says.

I’m reminded of David Bowie’s observation that it’s easiest to be sincere through artifice. (And if he didn’t say that, he should have.) So I ask Penny if having a lot of musical references to play with has allowed her to write about topics that might otherwise be too emotionally difficult. Does working within a genre give her freedom to be more personally expressive?

“I am with you theoretically but I don’t really feel like I work within the constraints of anything. The persona and melodrama are just part of the sincerity. I know I’m not inventing anything, and I know that the exchange between artist and listener is often most powerful when we touch on those common, shared experiences.”

Dum Dum Girls perform at 8pm, April 9 at the Blank Club. More info.

 

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