Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Great Pretend

The Great Pretend
“Down A Notch” EP
(Words on Music)

Music is important.  It has always been at the forefront of my consciousness.  My fascination with music is almost entirely founded on the sounds that great artists create, but there will always be a part of me that obsesses over the physical product.  Though the days of discovering new music in dark and dingy record stores in any city I would find myself in are now few and far between, I still cherish those moments.  I love holding the sleeve and artwork in my hands and to this day I can recite the place and often the circumstances I discovered and purchased almost any record or CD in my collection.  Since I entered my teens and began working for money to be used to feed my record habit, I have been occasionally haunted by dreams of finding imaginary obscure limited edition records from the bands I love.  The first of these that I still remember is one where I discovered a trove of Japanese import singles from Tears for Fears in the Lincoln City Safeway (and yes, back then Safeway groceries sold discount records near the checkout aisles).  Sadly, lately, many of those dreams are of trying to find lost treasures at “going out of business” sales.

It saddens me in a way that record and book stores have disappeared.  The highlight of visiting these types of cultural hubs in new cities has always been one of my biggest motivators for traveling.  In those days of visiting Seattle during Spring Break in my early High School years with my parents to visit my older brother were always exciting because I would get a chance to visit the huge Tower Record stores up there, or hit Fallout Records on Capitol Hill, or the random Cellophane Square stores in the malls around town, or if I was lucky hit the multitudes of little shops in the U-District.  Now when I go to that city to visit family and friends, it feels culturally bankrupt.  There are almost no record or book stores left.  Though, I fully realize that this is an ugly old curmudgeonly side of me popping out, it even saddens me that when I visit family and friends these days there’s a lack of music and records on display.  I am also a little jealous that they have homes with all this extra space not being taken up by huge shelves and boxes and stereo equipment that litter my place, because their music and books are all contained in phones, tablets and laptops.  In the end, what makes me most sad is that I no longer have any real memories or lasting excitement tied with the discovery of the increasing amount of music that I now collect digitally.  Yes, the music is what’s important and I sure as hell enjoy it to the fullest, but when I lay back and absorb that music I miss the distraction of the artwork and liner notes of the packaging.

I still remember when I first discovered the band Should.  No, it wasn’t by walking into a shop; instead it came from those old updates I used to receive in the post every couple of weeks from Parasol Records mail order throughout most of the 90s.  Those beat up brightly colored folded legal sized sheets of paper used to provide me with such joy and so many discoveries.  Each time an update would arrive I would study it, mark the 45s or CD’s that looked most intriguing and select the few of those that I felt I could afford (I couldn’t really afford them), phone the next day from work (free long distance) and place an order and then anxiously await the arrival of the new music and the nice little thank you note from Parasol artist/employee Angie Heaton.  Should’s 1998 second album Feed Like Fishes was one of those selections (most likely based on reference that the disc included a cover version of The Wedding Present’s song “Spangle”).  That was back in 1998.  Their next release was a reissue collection in 2002 of Should’s earliest work titled A Folding Sieve, which was once again excellent, but felt bittersweet as it seemed to be that their two CDs were really posthumous releases.  So it was with great surprise and excitement that when their third album Like a Fire Without Sound appeared 13 years later in 2011 (my #17 pick seen here) and it exceeded all hopes and turned out to be their best work yet.  

When I hit play on the Should’s latest CD, The Great Pretend (which shares the title of the closing track from Like a Fire Without Sound) and heard the quiet repetitive build up that is the mood setting “Don’t Send Me Your Regrets,” I knew immediately that this would be another stellar album from this reclusive post-punk duo.  There’s nearly a full two minutes of tension-building music before songwriter Marc Ostermeier sings “Oh no, don’t fill me with your regrets / Don’t fill the air with such nonsense” – setting the stage for an album full of quiet bitterness at the collapse of a relationship.  It excites me that many musicians have not lost the idea of albums in this day of downloading.  This is a collection of songs meant to be heard as a whole.  It is not just a bunch of songs.  It’s clear that the band carefully selected the running order and that it is meant to be heard in such a manner.  The second song finds the band continuing their long standing tradition of amazing cover versions (Wedding Present, Disco Inferno, Jean Paul Sartre Experience, 18th Dye) with a very straight forward version of “Loveless Devotion” from New Zealand’s Over the Atlantic.  This song is a revelation, because I was previously unfamiliar with this band, but it is also a perfect fit into the album.  It acts as a bridge between the newer more carefully crafted cleaner sounding Should and their edgier early sound as about two thirds of the way into this version, a grinding guitar boldly pops in and provides some urgency.  “Mistakes Are Mine” continues the bitterness, as our narrator sardonically accepts all of the blame for the failing romance atop a driving beat.  The catchy first single from the album, “Down a Notch,” provides a similar frustrated irritation (“If you’ve got all the answers / I’d like to hear just one of them”) inside a sugar coated musical message.  It isn’t until the closing orchestrated waltz  “Don’t Get to Know Me,” that the bitterness of the break-up turns inward, as Ostermeier and vocalist Tanya Maus conclude in a pretty repeated refrain that we should “all stay lonely” and give up the entire charade of getting along. 

Elsewhere, we find the band re-engaging with their early fuzzier sound on the upbeat “Dalliance,” while “In Monotone” and “A Lonely Place” guide us through their hazier and slower moods.  The penultimate song “Gold Stars,” offers a moment of beautiful melancholic reflection and sweetness to counter balance some of internal strife elsewhere.  Meanwhile, the unbelievably great sounding “Everybody Knows” channels the mysterious intrigue of post-punk legends and label-mates For Against.  The call and response vocals and the echo-laden soaring chorus had me singing along immediately.  Then there’s the hollow drum beat, heavy bass rumble, scratchy guitars, and heavy vocals of “Amends,” which I swear sounds like an outtake from Joy Division’s Closer sessions.  I love it when bands get better with age.  

Don’t miss the download only single “Down a Notch” either.  This includes the fantastic single from the LP – a great teaser for the uninitiated, but also two non-LP songs for the collectors.  “On Your Sleeve” is an excellent song that investigates the effects unspoken things that we want others to say or want to say at important moments.  It’s a powerful song.  Finally, “Animate” is a heavy and very straight-ahead instrumental. 

Should "Down a Notch"


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Ten Thousand Hours

Spotlight Kid
Ten Thousand Hours
(Saint Marie)

The past few years have been a great time for me when it comes to music.  There has been quite a revival of new artists who have been heavily influenced by the types of music that first captured my endless attention so long ago.  I want to shout it out to the world!  Unfortunately, my voice gets lost among the million plus other people doing the same thing and what makes my opinion more important or distinctive than anyone else’s?  Nothing.  I am simply a fanatical music freak who gets all worked up and cannot shut up about how cool I think this stuff is.  I wish I could do it justice.  I wish I could convince people out there that it’s all worth a close listen and repeated listens.  I absolutely want these artists to be able to continue their art and the best way is for them to make a living at it.  And I want to talk about it.  I want to be turned on to other artists who may inspire me along the way. 

At the moment, I am listening to the third album from UK six piece Spotlight Kid Ten Thousand Hours.  I have been anticipating this release since last spring and summer when they released two digital singles that dazzled my heart and mind: “Budge Up” and “Sugar Pills” (both included here).  I wrote about them at years’ end (my #17 pick of 2013 here) and will sadly most likely not do them any more justice than I managed to squeeze out at that time.  “Sugar Pills” smashes onto the scene here, after a brief pleasant instrumental title track, just as singer Katty Heath declares: “Like a lightning bolt and a jolt to my soul.”  This damn song gets better every time I hear it.  The relentless pounding drums, the flood of atmospheric noise that feels like fresh spring air coming through wide open windows.  It begs for increased volume and complete rapt attention.  So too does that other single “Budge Up.”  The dramatic intensity of the song is both thrilling and exhausting.  By the time the song reaches its Pixies “Tame”- like climax, we are completely wrung out on the emotions fueling the song.  The other pre-LP sneak peak, “Can’t Let Go,” is another scorcher that reminds of the exciting forward momentum that many of the songs on their second LP, 2011’s Disaster Tourist, contained, or tried to contain.

Elsewhere, we find the bubbling brightness of “I’ll Do anything.”  This song’s sparkling music and Heath’s terrific voice are as addictive as the crush described and yet the endlessly repeated guitar line creates a hypnotic and mildly melancholic effect.  The very grinding rocker that is “A Minor Character” glides and explodes with energy and a bitter dismissal in the chorus: “you’re such a minor character in my life” (one minor complaint: this song is not recorded with the same fidelity as the rest of the collection.  It lacks the same depth and richness.).  Meanwhile, the rich, electronically based instrumental “Hold On” provides a chance to breathe and at various moments reminds me of early Art of Noise.  While the bigger sounding mostly instrumental (one repeated lyric: “smile – only want to make you”), “Bright Eyes,” glides and grooves and goes all interstellar.  Finally, the closing powerhouse is actually the title song that was seemingly absent from their last album, “Disaster Tourist.”  The striking hot guitar line of each verse absolutely goes haywire and overloads into a My Bloody Valentine-style disorienting meltdown in each instrumental chorus.  It is stunning and remarkable. 

So, why haven’t I tracked down their debut album yet?  I promise to get on that task, if you promise to check out this new album.  Now, to get them to perform somewhere near or in Oregon….

Spotlight Kid "Sugar Pills"

Sunday, March 9, 2014


Soft Science
Detour LP
(Test Pattern)

I love it when a really good band becomes even better.  So much for the sophomore album slump or jinx!  Soft Science, a Sacramento four piece, has presented us with a heaping second helping of their beautiful sound and it tastes absolutely delicious.  Highs and Lows, their debut was delectable in itself (my #37 pick of 2011 seen here), but in a subtle way they have tightened all the unnoticed loose screws and polished the surface.  The result is an emboldened set of songs - the keyboard layers create a soft canvass, singer Katie Haley’s pleasant voice is more upfront, Matt Levine’s guitars are sharpened, while his twin brother Ross Levine’s drums and bassist Mason DeMusey’s foundation for the songs is sturdy, and strong and highlight’s throughout.

All of the signposts of their sound remain intact.  There is a definite Lush influence, but increasingly now more in common with Split or Lovelife than the dreamier early EPs and Spooky like their debut.  But what strikes me is how much this reminds me, in feel, of the wonderful and criminally overlooked Erotica album from The Darling Buds.  The band sound so locked in to what they’re doing that the entire album sounds effortless, open and free, despite the heartbreak strife presented in many of the lyrics. 

The opening track, “Nothing,” is an excellent transition from LP one to two.  The song begins with a dreamy guitar strum and voice and slowly adds instruments and momentum as it builds.  Haley repeatedly sings “there’s nothing left to give” about a dying relationship and fittingly the song feels a little bit stifled and ends before coming to a musical peak.  It’s a perfect matching of sentiment and music, while also allowing the flow of the album to take us to the musical highs that lie ahead.  There’s not long to wait, as “Light” and “Feel” immediately provide pure pop highs.  “Light” shuffles along nicely, but it’s the melancholic keyboards that hint at the story of separation and longing in the song’s lyrics.  Meanwhile, the heavier “Feel” is absolutely brimming with the wah-wah guitars and grooving bass line that hints at the great singles from the old “Madchester” scene, similarly, the shimmering and buzzing beauty that is “Blue” could’ve been the hit single that the Darling Buds needed on their second album Crawdaddy – so too the urgent, swift, and addictive as can be “Cold” (yes, all of the song titles are one word).  It’s fun to hear songs like this again.  Of course, I’m also a sucker for songs like “Gone” and “Falling,” which both strive for a big sound.  Both songs surge with a deep low end, solid mid tempo drums (I especially love the syncopated beat in “Falling”), and plenty of room for the vocals and guitars to shade in the colors and moods.  Hell, the entire album is top notch.  The album is available as a download, but there is a limited vinyl edition (with download code) of 200 that is a must have, which I highly recommend.

There’s something very intriguing brewing in California’s state capitol these days and thankfully, Test Pattern Records has sprouted up to document some of this great music.  I’m beginning to believe that if bands such as Soft Science, Arts & Leisure, and Desario don’t come to grace Portland with some live performances soon, I may have to make a road trip.

Soft Science "Feel"

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Too Much Information

Maxïmo Park
Too Much Information 2xCD

I am thankful for bands such as Maxïmo Park.  They have now released five consistently excellent full length albums over the last nine years without line-up changes.  This is a band that retains its original passion and continues to progress as they craft each new entry into their cannon.  Sure, the full-on whoosh of their debut, 2005’s A Certain Trigger, has mellowed some over the years, but their ability to capture heart pounding tales of love won and lost, empathetic politics, and lost literary moments all within really catchy (oft-described as “angular”) tunes has never waned. 

Their first album was one of my favorite albums of 2005.  It was like sugar rush that I never wanted to come down from.  It remained in my car player for the better part of a year and my frantic drive-dancing, air drum fills, and attempts at keeping up with Paul Smith earnest and energetic vocals most likely had me in several near accidents, but it didn’t matter.  The album remains an instant quick jolt of adrenalin every time I decide to put it on to this day.  The swift step of the opening track “Give, Get, Take” hints at the breathless sprint of their debut, as does the two minute pound of the ode to activist author Audre Lorde, while the heavier, but in your face “My Bloody Mind,” whose rousing fist pumping chorus rescues the off-kilter opening couple of verses, actually gradually and subtlety unwinds into a quiet piano sprinkled fade out.  And so, it is notable to me that my early favorites on this new album are actually some of the quieter moments (like that tasteful piano) in the collection.  Guitarist Lukas Wooller channels a delectable Johnny Marr lick on another literary referencing “Lydia, the Ink Will Never Run Dry” on which the band finds a tight groove reminiscent of the Smiths’ breezy “Some Girls Are Bigger than Others, only more substantial.  Meanwhile, the slow burn of “Leave This Island” captures the point between desperation and resignation as the protagonist watches their love prepare to leave (“Tell me why there’s a map on the table / It’s a pack of lies – it’s not a peak, it’s a plateau / Let me know when you want to leave this island / let me know when you want to hear my point of view”).  Later on, another mid-tempo instant classic, “Drinking Martinis,” sets a wistful and airy stage as Smith reflects on past good times with someone long gone and wonders if that person has that same fondness of their shared past (“Now that you’re gone / do you feel anything?”).  The crystal clear build up of “Midnight on the Hill” is another spectacular moment that opens this song into one that feels like it’s always been a favorite.  Smith’s pleading voice vividly places us into his reflections of happier times as he tries to come to terms that they are now lost to time. 

Too Much Information is a great ride.  The band may have softened their edges and their relentless attack, but what we’ve gained along the way is a band that can put together a varied and rich album.  There are new touches and progressions like the wonderful moments of background vocal harmonies throughout and there’s the dance inducing echo chamber of the first single “Brain Cells” - an interesting new direction (I too wonder and worry about my brain cells decaying as I plod my way through uninspiring day after day), while the closing “Where We’re Going” strums along casually and finds solace in letting someone else take the wheel.  It’s inspiring to see a band stick it out through thick and thin, continue to grow and expand their sound, and yet retain their strong personality and passion.  Well done!

If you’re lucky and find the early editions of Too Much Information, you can be privy to a second disc of six cover versions (a la Veronica Falls covers EPs).  Other than reworking a few lyrics and the title to the Fall’s “Edinburgh Man” to “Middlesborough Man,” these covers are all faithful to their originals.  They take on Townes Van Sandt’s country lament “I’ll Be Here in the Morning,” Leonard Cohen’s endlessly catchy “Lover Lover Lover,” Nick Drake’s beautiful “Northern Sky,” the landmark single “Final Day” from Young Marble Giants and finally Mazzy Star’s most popular “Fade into You.”  The EP is like a cool mix-tape from an old friend.

Maximo Park "Leave This Island"

Saturday, February 22, 2014


(Wichita Recordings)

My old friend Ken, one time way back in High School – probably spontaneously, as we were about to begin a test in something like Geometry class – blurted out one of his many invented jokes.  He said: “I hate taking tests at the zoo.”  Of course, what you may have already surmised is that this is not a good way to set up a joke.  There’s no inherent response that such a statement will illicit, such as a ‘knock knock’ joke, which universally brings about the response: “who’s there?”  Somehow though, we were all tuned in enough to set him up as he needed to bring about the punch line.  “Why do you hate taking tests at the zoo, Ken?” - came the response.  “I always end up next to the cheatahs.”  And now, here we are 25 plus years later and I am listening to the debut album by a band named Cheatahs, before attending the first stop on their first US tour here in Portland tonight (2/22/14).  I cannot imagine a connection here, besides that they are using the term Cheatahs in the same twisted context.  Word has it that this UK-based four-piece, comprised of an American, a Canadian, a Brit and a German, coined the name because they were all involved with other projects, but were moonlighting with each other as they formed this band.  Whatever the case, I’m glad they went the route they’ve chosen, because their previous Extended Plays collection (my 2013 #11 pick seen here) and now this debut are dominating my music world.

As mentioned in my review of Extended Plays, this band dwells in musical styling’s that were guiding my days back in the early 90s.  They could be ripped for being too derivative, but I simply don’t care.  This new album contains a fire and passion and a quality that overcomes everything.  What I liked about the best of the old “shoegaze” bands (a terrible UK press term thrown at a wide variety of bands of that era, because their stage presence was too insular and not rock star-ish enough for headline hungry writers) were that they acted as a complete unit.  All of the instruments (be it guitars, bass, keyboards, drums, vocals, etc.) were on equal footing.  The songs were more about the whole impression - a wash of noise that could somehow be loud and bold, dreamy and atmospheric, and most importantly melodic, all at the same time!  When bands such as Swervedriver, Ride, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, early Moose, Lush, Catherine Wheel, Pale Saints, Curve and many many blew my freaking mind and expanded my horizons twenty plus years ago, it was because they somehow encapsulated everything that I had previously loved about music up to that point and pushed it to new territories.  Cheatahs have brought this all back to me and it sounds as fresh now as it ever did then.

For those familiar with the band up to this point, the second EP Sans lead off track “The Swan” makes a triumphant appearance in all of its huge pounding and soaring glory.  It has the same kind of vibe as Interpol’s “PDA,” but not as dry and angular.  Also, both sides of their late 2013 pre-LP single emerge in fuller forms.  The “Son of Mustang Ford” careening abandon and white hot riffage of “Kenworth” slowly dissolves into a floating in space ambient conclusion, while the super catchy buzz and spooky keyboards of “Cut the Grass” are allowed to come to a proper conclusion now, as the abrupt fade-out from the 7” is corrected.  Meanwhile all of the new material blasts and swoons perfectly. The album feels cohesive and flows naturally.  The new single “Get Tight” alternates a grinding power chord with each sung lyric and manages to alternate between heavy rock, dreamy psychedelia, and catchy three minute pop song.  Elsewhere, the opening mellow instrumental snippet of “1” explodes into “Geographic” whose hard strummed guitar hook instantly puts this song into overdrive, while the blistering and gliding “Northern Exposure” and its amazing chorus brings to mind the inspiration that is Teenage Fanclub’s “Star Sign.”  The second half of the album is the first real sign of their My Bloody Valentine influence, as “IV” is rife with layers of see-saw off-kilter feedback waves over the top of a stuttering shuffle beat.  The album closes with the most melancholic sounding song of the collection, “Loon Calls,” which is also one of their strongest to date,

It’s always difficult to describe what music sounds like, but it’s even harder when everything fits together so well in these ‘washes’ of melodic sound.  It takes so many listens to break apart mentally each component’s importance to the whole.  What I can say though, is that this is a lot of fun to listen to and both of their CDs have been on constant repeat at home and in my car for some time now.  I do not see that ending any time soon.  Now should I try and tell them Ken’s joke sometime before or after their performance tonight?  Probably not.

Cheatahs "Get Tight"


Thursday, February 20, 2014

None the Wiser

I’ve been in a tiny bit of a crisis mode about writing these reviews.  One of my goals to begin this year was to write about music as I encounter it throughout the year – highlighting what I personally find exciting and try to spread the word, instead of saving it all up until the year end best of list and completely melting my feeble brain with 40 plus of my favorites.  Well, I’ve been doing this, but only a month and a half in, I’ve lost focus.  Instead of being content with the joy of listening to the great music (and this year’s music has been especially great so far!) and writing about it, I’ve found myself too fixated with my limitations as a writer and too discouraged by a lack of response or much of an audience of any kind.  I’ve also questioned the point of my silly little ramblings about silly little albums.  I wish I had more valuable insight, such as the thoughtful musings and life lessons as presented by Kario via her frequent posts in The Writing Life, or tangible skills to offer like the renaissance talents on display from Lola Nova – a crafter, writer, and musician.  My excuse is that I tend to personalize these reviews quite a bit.  I do not take an academic approach and attempt to slot each release into a historical context and pontificate about how it may fit into the grander social and cultural context.  I do my damnedest to express in a feeble way how powerful this music is to me and how it impacts me.  In this world of complete and total narrowcasting, it feels like it’s too easy to shut out the recommendations of friends and those old knowledgeable, but sometimes intimidating record store guys of the old days.  I am guilty of this as well.  I couldn’t tell you who 90% of the artists that are “popular” are these days, but I can also say that I don’t have a lot of favorite artists that have been discovered via pre-programmed suggestions as presented from Spotify or Pandora or whatnot (there’s been a few interesting discoveries, I won’t lie).  Most of the thrilling finds still come from friends or trusted writers giving a song or album their solid approval and spreading the word.  So, I am still in flux and question the value of this for myself or anyone else, but I made a commitment to myself to make a concerted effort to write more, so I will continue for now.  I do encourage anyone who happens upon this to share their thoughts about the music in question or music in general.  There’s not much I enjoy more than listening to and absorbing the music I love - jabbering ceaselessly about it comes close.


The Rifles
None the Wiser
(Cooking Vinyl)

It’s fitting that I now turn my attention to the UK four-piece The Rifles.  As I was waiting for the long-awaited pre-ordered (via a Pledgemusic campaign begun in 2012) copy of their wonderful fourth album to arrive, I perused the web for a few reviews to get a line on what to expect.  What I ran into was a lot of hyperbole about how the Rifles are making ‘unhip’ music and that they were and apparently will always be middling.  I would guess that hearing such commentary certainly wouldn’t be very inspiring or encouraging – considering the fairly middling "success" of the band.  It cannot be easy to keep chugging out their brand of tasteful mod pop, however unhip, with such a limited response after ten plus years as a band.  Yet, here they are and after a one album separation (see review of the experimental and beautiful third album Freedom Run 2011 #8 pick here) the original members are all back in place and sounding as fresh and vibrant as ever. 

Right away, this album sounds like it has a lot more in common with their 2006 debut No Love Lost.  It is brimming with tight pop songs with huge memorable choruses and hummable guitar hooks.  Whether endlessly catchy music is hip or not, I could give a shit.  This music and these simple ruminations about love found and lost are so damn enjoyable.  There is a willing innocence to these tunes.  They sound like they could’ve been huge radio hits from the mid 60s, or the cool retro mod run that the Jam had in the late 70s.  One song after another, from the tight dry opening of “Minute Mile” (what a chorus!) to the two minute burst of the jaunty “Heebie Jeebies” on to the spiky “Go Lucky” (what a guitar melody!) to the jangly classic pop of “All I Need,” which I dare anyone not to bounce around with snapping fingers upon first listen, these first four songs alone make the album worth the price of admission.  Each and every one could and should be hit singles – like a hot streak in a career spanning best of.  I only stopped that list, because the sentence was getting too unruly.  The fifth song “You Win Some” follows in the finger snapping mode as they take a positive take on the churning of time, by continuing to look ahead and be ready for good times (“open up your heart and let come what ever may / and you’ll win someday”).  The unfortunately titled “Catch Her in the Rye” is another classic song brimming with life and another big sing-along chorus (which reminds me of something I cannot quite place – is it similar to the chorus of Tears For Fears’ early single “Suffer the Children” of all things?  Hmmmm….) that addresses the battle for individuality and making a mark or difference (“there’s a million things you missed at school / there’s a million and one like you / another drop in the sea and the oceans blue / cause it’s full up to the banks with fools like you”). 

The second half of the album loses a slight touch of steam for me, but still has plenty of magic moments.  The melancholic “The Hardest Place to Find Me” reflects on poor decisions from the past in the face of the passage of time.  “Shoot from the Lip” and “Eclectic Eccentric” both lumber along at times musically, but once each reaches their respective chorus they bloom with wide open glory.  The album officially closes with “Under and Over,” which will probably be a great live closer allowing the crowd to sing-along about man digging for money and for greed. 

Does this live up to their previous “middling” legacy?  I think so.  I think their devoted fans will enjoy – but I do not see why songs this addictive cannot be enjoyed by a wider audience.  I hope it will be. 

The Rifles "Minute Mile"


Sunday, February 16, 2014

Too True

Dum Dum Girls
Too True
(Sub Pop)

How does one ever get over major grief?  And by grief, I mean the catastrophic kind – the kind that we hopefully will only have to experience a few times during our lives – like the death of a parent, child, or spouse, or from extreme personal illness.  Whatever form it may take, every one of us will go through some kind of heartbreak that feels insurmountable.  Sadly, there are those of us who cannot and choose not to continue on with their inner turmoil.  For the rest of us, what remains?  Do we ever find a genuine path back?  I’m sure some of us actually do, but no matter how many times we are reminded of the Kübler-Ross Model (Five Stages of Grief), I wonder if the rest of us ever actually move past the grief, but instead simply stop dwelling on it.  It’s as if we simply return to the denial stage and try to act as if nothing is wrong anymore in order to not be a burden on those who we find ourselves with, be it family, friends, and even co-workers or neighbors.  We make an attempt to hit reset and go back to how we felt before the pain hit our lives, but we all know that we are forever changed in a negative way.  Sure, someone can argue that positives can be drawn from such difficult times and it is all about perspective.  It’s like when a person tells a story of survival like: “I was lucky to survive the 200 foot fall when the cliff collapsed underneath my feet.”  It always seems like they were first really unlucky to be present when that ledge crumbled.  I’m probably saying a lot about myself with these questions and statements, but I find that all of the most painful events in my life have only made me numb to both the highs and lows that our life can provide.

Numbness is a recurring allusion on Dum Dum Girls’ newest album (their third).  On “Too True to be Good,” Dee Dee Penny sings: “the clouds were opening above my head / stood on the edge / feeling so dead.”  There is exhaustion here.  She has been on the edge from mourning the loss of her mom for so long (as chronicled brilliantly and heartrendingly and their 2011 Only in Dreams – see my breakdown here) that she feels like she’s between wanting to die and already dead.  With 2012’s End of Daze EP closer “Season in Hell” she showed us the first glimpses of recovery (or acceptance) as she powerfully sang about the redemptive power of the dawn, but with this new release it feels like she’s simply worn out from dwelling on her pain, which still lingers.  This album, though far more advanced than the bedroom recordings of her 2010 debut I Will Be, has more in common with that release than Only in Dreams.  The full band is gone (sadly) and we’re back with the drum machine and dirty sounding guitars.  The production is brighter and the songs are more varied and fully realized than that promising debut, but songs like “Evil Blooms” and “Little Minx,” with its pile driving drum beat and fuzzy guitars, sound like they could’ve come from that time. 

As I’ve mentioned numerous times on this page a couple of years ago, Only in Dreams found a way to force me to confront the loss of my mom – something I’m not sure I had ever truly done.  I think I was still inside some sort of extended denial stage.  Dee Dee’s powerful, frank and vivid words really hit me hard, all the while making fantastically catchy and enjoyable tunes that beg for repeated listens.  The question is really how could she follow up such a forceful and committed album?  How would I react?  Her songs have been some of my favorite over the last few years, but how could she ever achieve that transformative magic again?  I’m not sure it’s possible.  However, once the fourth song, “Are You Okay?” comes around, everything becomes just right; this strumming narcotic of a song is instantly addictive and begs to be sung along with.  Not only that, but it confronts exactly these questions of lingering mourning: “But what if it doesn’t go away? What if this feeling always plagues?” - and finds answers in understanding support: “and you say ‘are you okay?’ What do you feel?  I feel it too.”  This is where the album really finds its stride.  The aforementioned “Too True to be Good” shuffles along beautifully with terrific background vocals elevating the song to another level.  Then the loneliness of separation sets in on the relentless buzz of “In the Wake of You,” where Dee Dee sounds a helluva lot like the smoky voiced Christina Amphlett (R.I.P.) from Australia’s Divinyls.  It’s on the first single, “Lost Boys and Girls Club,” where Dee Dee channels a later era Siouxsie Sioux and sings of being adrift and looking for company – like a theme song for all of the downtown Goths smoking cloves below the neon lights of the degenerate clubs.  In the reverb soaked closing ballad, “Trouble is My Name,” Dee Dee sems resigned to her fate: “There’s nothing you can do to make all your bad turn good.”  She is still looking for a way out of her trouble, but seems to be accepting that trouble will haunt her anyway.

So, no, this is not as stunning and heart wrenchingly powerful as Only in Dreams, but Dee Dee has managed to provide us with an entertaining set of new music.  For me, it doesn’t hurt that her influences are so seemingly in line with mine.  She has a knack for tapping into sounds that I am predestined to like.  My only complaint is the lack of the full band on the recording.  This may be a choice made to save money, or that they were all too busy with their own projects (check out drummer Sandy's amazing Sisu - my #10 pick of 2013 seen here) but I look forward to hearing these new songs live and in person on their upcoming tour.

Dum Dum Girls "Lost Boys and Girls Club