The more things change, the more they stay the same. This is one of those cliches that is as often true as it is untrue. Sometimes, the more things change, well, the more they really do change. Dum Dum Girls sure experience a fair amount of change on their second full-length album, Only In Dreams (not a Weezer reference), and the album dwells firmly in a middle ground between drastic flux and same-old-same, seeming like a natural progression for the young band who have finally come into their own.
One of the biggest changes comes with the recording lineup, which had previously been just frontwoman Dee Dee but now features all four Dum Dums kicking out the garage rock anthems like a true garage band. From the opening peppy fuzz of “Always Looking,” Only In Dreams defines immediacy, using hissing textures, confident vocals, and familiar-but-not-too-familiar melodies to raise questions to the artfulness of music that on the surface finds its appeal in a mostly visceral level.
But, through expert pacing and more-than-meets-the-eye lyrics, Only In Dreams is, in fact a much more accomplished album than many might give it credit for. In a recent interview, frontwoman Dee Dee spoke about he mother’s death and her absence from her husband, and just how that informed the album, which, once revealed, become impossible to ignore. Behind the bouncy drum beat and the lyric “I just want to have fun” on “Caught In One” are masked references to this tragedy, with lines like “all skin and bones but in your eyes / you’re still alive” lifting the veil on the humanity of the vampy, stone-faced singer. Little about Dum Dum Girls before this could be described as emotional and the band doesn’t reach far from their comfort zone to incorporate this aspect. But, like most knock-out punches, the harshest blows come when you are not looking.
Any talk of “comfort zone” and the Dum Dum Girls’ sound must note the departure that “Coming Down” is. Released as the first single from the collection, it was hard to imagine the track fitting comfortably on a record that sounded anything like the Dum Dum Girls had previously. But, alas, nestled deeply in the collection, “Coming Down” shines brightly as a jewel in an already decorated display case, proving not only Dee Dee’s ability to hold the listener hostage for six and a half minutes, but also push her vocals to the brink on the reaching note in the bridge, showing fearlessness and sheer will to make the song as affecting as possible. It works, and “Coming Down” is able to shed any Mazzy Star comparisons it may garner by finding a balance between muscular power and delicate beauty that is something special all to its own.
Only In Dreams is rich enough that it is not hard to imagine people bickering about the standouts. Mine is “Heartbeat,” in which Dee Dee manages to milk her robust voice to sound like Neko Case (a comparison that I do not use lightly), while other notables include the steadily building “In My Head” and “Teardrops On My Pillow,” a straight-forward foot-stomper that is tinged with just the right amount of darkness. But, nothing on Only In Dreams sounds like too far of a cry from Dum Dum Girls’ earlier work, and we are always very comfortable in any left turns that may be taken, even when it is a little heavy handed, such as closer “Hold Your Hand.” Dum Dum Girls always know exactly who they are, play on their own strengths, and leave the audience fully satisfied and happy to come back for more. Simplicity rarely sounds this good.