Backward into the Future

Some songwriters are city planners, always seeking out new spaces for their muse. Some are interior designers, redecorating the same rooms on record after record. And some, like the Dum Dum Girls’ Dee Dee prefer to sit and stare at the same four walls, discerning what was there all along. Her band’s new album Too True is no departure. But that’s precisely what makes it good.

When you’re working in a musical form that’s over half a century old, represented in more songs than anyone could possibly count, the only novelty worth pursuing has to be in the details. The way a drumbeat pushes a shimmery line faster than seems prudent; the blurry reflection of a chord that situates it in a specific locale; the slight drag on a vocal that communicates existential doubt: subtleties like these are what separate Too True from other records traversing the same smooth-worn terrain.

It’s not just that Dee Dee pays proper attention to the small things, but how she pieces them together. Each song on the album conjures a swath of antecedents, without apologies or the arched eyebrows of the spot-my-clever-reference set. One minute you could swear you’re swimming in the streamlined neon surfaces of the early 1980s, the next in the swampier depths of a decade later.

Cumulatively, this layering manages to summon the past without letting it wipe out the present. On first hearing, Too True seems defiantly retro, repudiating the mash-up of genres that resulted from hip-hop and dance-tronica’s rise to prominence in the wake of the Cold War. But the longer you listen to the album, the harder it is to place. Instead of the shameless nostalgia of bands that strip mine a particular era, it propels us backward into the future, paying tribute to its forebears from a respectful distance.

One of the Dum Dum Girls’ first breakthroughs was their take on The Smiths’ “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”, which artfully avoided both the obsequiousness of note-for-note covers and the self-importance of those that deliberately savage the original song. It was a perfect choice, because like that crucial Manchester band, Dee Dee and her collaborators inspire nostalgia for something that never really existed.

Like The Smiths’ best work, Too True’s fourth song “Are You Okay?” turns on the delicious tension between a rhythm section that knows exactly where it’s headed and Dee Dee’s languid singing, which sounds like she’s putting the brakes on, because she isn’t sure she wants to end up there. The music matches her lyrics perfectly: “I know just what I’m doing/But what is this that I’m pursuing?”

While Dee Dee is certainly no Morrissey, she has a gift for making every word count. Too True‘s closing number carves out a vast emptiness for the chorus to roll through, making it simultaneously bleak and hopeful: “Oh trouble is my name/Is it your name, too?” Second track “Evil Blooms” holds out the prospect of post-moral ecstasy with tantalizing clarity: “From on our knees the view is clear/The kind of sky that baits and lures/Do what you want, do what you can/There is such bliss when you’ve no plan.”

That song is also a perfect example of Dum Dum Girls’ facility for treating musical history as a palimpsest. While the guitar figures recall first-generation Flower Power, the bass line is rooted squarely in the neo-psychedelia of bands like Ride and The Stone Roses, who turned stoner self-indulgence into tightly woven textures. “Evil Blooms” pays tribute, then, to a paying tribute, but exacts its own price in the process.

Too True is not the sort of record that will radically reshape your worldview. If you don’t care for Dum Dum Girls’ touchstones or wonder if their sort of sincere rock music has outstayed its welcome, these songs are unlikely to change your mind. But if you still have room in your heart for this aesthetic and give the album a chance, it will prove a worthy companion.


Photograph courtesy of  Sub Pop. All rights reserved

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