Kristin “Dee Dee” Gundred starts off her band’s new album by singing about men who have wronged her: “Before I met you, I had a few/ Who hung around made me blue.” Then she flips the sentiment around to express cautious optimism, insisting that “[she] was always looking.” On paper, it’s not terribly far removed from the utterances of a certain Bethany Consentino. But while the majority of Crazy For You consisted of Consentino making sure you knew how lovesick she was, Gundred’s lines are more nuanced, layering her deeply personal experiences with hopefulness. Not for nothing does she herself call the band’s songs unabashedly “heart-on-sleeve.” Somehow Gundred comes out of the whole affair without ever sounding overly self-satisfied; she’s always winningly earnest, backed by her band’s equally sincere approach to rocking out. Dum Dum Girls are perhaps the best throwback indie pop band around right now, and in the course of a year, they’ve evolved tremendously. I Will Be, their debut, was a happy affair, but its short, sparse songs seemed to end as soon as they began. This year’s He Gets Me High EP was a welcome improvement, signaling a move towards full-blooded production, and now we have Only in Dreams, the band’s second album proper and easily their strongest effort yet.
There is not a single weak track to be found here; each song brims with life and is enhanced by Gundred’s effortlessly expressive vocals. Take the lovely “Just a Creep,” in which Gundred navigates the ins and outs of the band’s messy, reverb-heavy sound, her voice skillfully working a sinuous and deceptively simple melody. Most galvanizing are those frequent moments where the band indulges in vocal harmony; for the first time, all four members of the band sing, and the vocal texture these times are where the “girl-group” sound is most notable. And Dum Dum Girls wear that identifier proudly, eschewing its stereotypes and/or negative connotations simply by disregarding them. From the charming, longing “Bedroom Eyes” — with a particularly narcotic chorus of, uh, “I need your bedroom eyes” — to the contemplative musings of “Coming Down” — written shortly after Gundred’s mother passed away — the band sounds utterly at ease with itself, exuding confidence at every corner. Really, upon a cursory listen, Only in Dreams would seem to be an unequivocal triumph.
But… but. No matter how likable all 10 of these songs may be, there’s something missing here. The practically gravitational pull that great albums have on my ears and my mind doesn’t have as much of a grip as I feel like it should. Upon a third listen, some of the giddiness wears off, and I start to realize how similar these drum rhythms all are — the trio of “In My Head,” “Heartbeat,” and “Caught in One” is particularly repetitive — and how frustratingly familiar these guitar licks sound. While I know that conventionality is a fundamentally unsound base to negatively judge music on, it nags at the brain. These are really good songs, without a doubt, and so Only in Dreams is, by association, a superb collection of pop tracks. But as an album — a cohesive body of work — it lacks a satisfactory completeness.
Which is fine, really. This is only the band’s second full-length, and judging from the leap forward the band has made since I Will Be was released way back in the spring of 2010, they’ve got a very fulfilling career ahead of them. Gundred has said in interviews that she’s reluctant to become merely a “meme” in the eyes of Hipster Runoff’s Carles — she’d probably also like to avoid being labeled an “indie female sex icon,” as Carles has a tendency to ironically do — but she doesn’t need to worry about that. The largely male-driven indie rock press will always carry traces of misogyny, but these songs stand perfectly well on their own, independent of whatever “sex appeal” journalists may slap onto the band. Because, really, such cultural hodgepodge dissolves when, on the achingly beautiful “Hold Your Hand,” Gundred attacks the loss of her mother with a surprising and heart-wrenching directness: “And you’d do anything to bring her back/ I wish it wasn’t true/ But there’s nothing I can do/ Except hold your hand/ To the very end.” Despite their musical references to the past, Dum Dum Girls deal in visceral songwriting, and that’s absolutely undeniable.