Thursday, June 7, 2012

Only in Dreams

Recently, I was lucky enough to see my first Dum Dum Girls show.  It turns out it was the finale of their big tour for their spectacular second LP Only in Dreams released early last fall.  It was a huge album for me and I wound up ranking it in my Top 5 for all of 2011 (#4 to be exact – see brief overview here).  I absolutely love their sound.  I have always had a soft spot for the 60s girl groups (I loved the Shangri La’s as a little kid!) and over the last few years a lot of great new music has been heavily influenced by these classic sounding pop groups.  I think it was the fun-loving Pipettes who first suckered me back into this exciting sound, but now we’ve got Best Coast, Vivian Girls, and The Ravonettes, among many others.  And the Dum Dum’s manage to capture that fun vibe and overhaul it with some updated punk energy and a huge amount of heart.  It’s a mix that makes me dizzy with delight. 

Normally, I do not spend a lot of time writing about all the shows I’ve seen over the (gulp!) last 27 years. I have seen hundreds upon hundreds of bands live and have cherished most of the memories along the way. The problem with writing about live music is that it’s fleeting. It’s a ‘had to be there’ sort of thing. Sure, it’s nice to get a feel of how a band might be perceived in a live setting according to a trusted music writer beforehand (maybe I could’ve avoided a few of the disasters I’ve encountered), but circumstances change from night to night – one never knows, unless they go check them out for themselves. I can be heard chattering on and on endlessly about the shows I see to my friends who choose to miss out – in order to remind them that they indeed MISSED OUT. This was definitely the case earlier this year when the occasionally reunited early 90s band Swervedriver rolled through town and blew the doors off the venue and exceeded my already high expectations from four previous experiences dating back over 20 years, or the angry Bob Mould show supporting Black Sheets of Rain in 1990, or that Echo and the Bunnymen show in ’88 after they’d had a spat with the club owner and proceeded to shred through a fiery set at the Starry Night, or that time that Jeff and I went ‘against the grain’ down in front at La Luna for Bad Religion in 1994, or that weird show at the Madrona Hill Winery that featured a bunch of Slumberland Records bands where I was smitten with the aggressive drumming of Amy Linton (who would later become a favorite with her mostly solo act: The Aislers Set) of the schizophrenic Henry’s Dress (also in ’94), or, or….

So, why am I writing about the Dum Dum Girls show? Maybe it’s because of all the shows I’ve attended over the years; this one has left me lost in a daze of a lingering sadness. I’ve experienced emotional moments before while seeing/hearing a gut wrenching song performed, but I left this show amongst a group of people giddy and energetic and satisfied with the elevating renditions of much of their catalogue, while I slowly strolled out melancholic and stunned. After parting ways with my accompanying friends and hearing the Only in Dreams CD continue its repeated rotation quietly in the background of the road noise during my drive home, I was on the verge of tears - fighting back an overwhelming urge to bawl my head off. What has made this especially powerful for me is that this feeling has not really dulled since the show nearly two weeks ago.

The Dum Dum’s bandleader Dee Dee Penny lost her mom to a fatal illness, since writing, recording and releasing her debut album (2010’s promising reverb drenched mostly solo home recording I Will Be) a fact that I neglected, or chose not to mention in my previous write up. I do not know Dee Dee, beyond her wonderful music, but I would imagine that she and her mom were incredibly close, since a picture of her mom graced that debut album, as well as a 2009 EP. By the results of her songwriting for the follow-up album, the one that was an immediate favorite last year, Only in Dreams, she was indeed very close to her mom. At least half of the songs on the album and I would argue that seven of the ten are directly about witnessing the effects of her mom’s illness and trying to cope with her passing. It is a heavy album. It is a sad album. It is an emotional and insightful look into the mind of someone trying to come to terms with the unanswerable questions regarding the pain, suffering and death of loved ones. It is absolutely heartbreaking.

The album starts out innocently enough, as the opening song “Always Looking,” picks right up with a moment of excitement from an early spark of a love affair. It’s loaded with energy and fire and handclaps and a refreshing surf guitar fill that carries the song. The second song and first LP single “Bedroom Eyes” comes in with a timeless sound and a serious aching for a loved one during a time of separation. Interestingly enough, the third song, “Just a Creep,” turns out to be a big kiss off. The handclaps and surf guitar return, but so does some spite (“poor thing / it must be hard / to be yourself each day”) as Dee Dee smoothly tells some creep off. Then, like most albums, we get bounced back to the longing love song. Much like the sentiment of “Bedroom Eyes,” this one finds another lonely moment, where Dee Dee is in need of loving company (“I can’t live without your warmth / I just wanna be adored / oh, I’d do anything to bring you home / tonight”).

This is where the album turns and it turns ugly. Five of the final six songs are painfully forthcoming and wallow in the freshness of deep sorrow - clearly the sorrow from losing her mom. Most people would not notice the bleakness within, as the songs continue to pound away with the same classic pop and finger snapping upbeat music, other than the epic, slow burning “Coming Down.”

The first song to get to me emotionally was also the first one that made my spine shiver, when I first heard Dee Dee’s voice trill during the closing moments of “Heartbeat (Take It Away).”  Here she pleads for an end to her sorrow and to find the strength to continue living life (“how can I tell myself / if I can’t tell anyone else / I’ll stick my thoughts on a shelf until tomorrow”).  This sentiment rings strikingly true for me, since when my mom passed, I could not talk about it at all for years.  My only coping mechanism was complete avoidance.  My only survival was to pretend that nothing happened (“Take it away…Where can I go where sorrow will not find me?”).

“Caught in One” is the opening song of side two and it begins with a nice sing along vocal, until we realize what we’re singing:

“Death is on the telephone
I lie and say she isn’t home
If only he would make a move instead
He sleeps in her bed…

“I waste away my days with you
I’d rather spend them like you do
All skin and bones
But in your eyes, I say to you
You’re still alive…

“You can tell me time will heal
But you don’t know the way I feel
I never had imagined death
Beyond the vague and cold last breath
But now I see his many forms
The way he builds up like a storm
And all the pain and all the sighs
The world I’m in…
My mother’s eyes”

“Coming Down” gives a reprieve from the sadness by giving us another break up song. This time it’s more dramatic as she seems to be leaving an abusive relationship. Instead of flippantly dismissing her victim like in “Just a Creep,” she gives us redemption by beautifully holding the note, and once again melting my heart, with the triumphant line “there I go!”

At first listen, “Bedroom Eyes” felt like a ‘missing you’-style love song, but the more I listen to this album, the more it feels like a precursor to the more open and stabbing “Wasted Away.” The belting and gut wrenching line “fear I’ll never sleep again” on the bridge of “Bedroom Eyes” can take on a different urgency when interpreted through the eyes of the album as a whole. “Wasted Away” meanwhile, presents us with the frankness of Dee Dee sifting through her mom’s possessions, while struggling with the idea of losing her memories of her mother and the guilt of not being able to take her pain away while she was still alive. It’s absolutely crushing and the onslaught continues on unabated with the penultimate song “Teardrops on My Pillow”:


“My nightmares have a sudden tone
It’s dangerous to be left alone
I wander blindly through my fears
It’s strange and dark and you’re not there
Cause you’re gone
You’re gone…

“Heartbreak washes over me
Like moonlight soft I cannot see
I’m angry I recall your face
Now there’s nothing in its place
Cause you’re gone
You’re gone”

“Hold Your Hand,” the old fashioned sounding closing ballad, tries to wrap up the messy and irresolvable feelings that come about from such loss by proclaiming that “You’d do anything to bring her back … Oh, I wish it wasn’t true, but there’s nothing I can do / except hold your hand / ‘til the very end.” 

I think the live show brought this emotional trauma into focus for me.  Up to that point, despite knowing all of the sadness inside these songs, I had managed to still listen to the songs and bop my head around and sing along without a care in the world.  It must have been seeing Dee Dee sing some of these horrifyingly tragic documents in person that brought everything to a head.  Seeing the pain in her eyes as she sang these hurtful words, after so many performances in so many cities around the world, led me to absorb the sheer power of her expression.  There were moments while I stood amongst the crowd and with friends – near the front – I was overcome.  I felt like I was a sponge that could only soak up sadness.  The Dum Dum Girls came and ripped my heart out, stomped on it repeatedly and shoved it back in with no expectation for recovery.  And yet, I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world.  The show wasn’t doom and gloom at all.  They played all kinds of songs from their early material, all of which sounded much improved from the recorded versions with the full band.  They played a short burst of a song that I did not recognize that I am hoping beyond all hopes is new material, because it was stunning!  Then during the encore, they pulled out an amazing cover (damn these gals have great taste!!) of the old Pale Saints tour de force “Sight of You,” which put a huge grin across my face as I felt that  irresistible bass-line vibrate through my chest.

This was a cathartic experience.  It has opened up all kinds of lingering emotional wounds from when my mom passed away so long ago now.  I miss her today as much as I did when we first lost her.  It has made me realize that I am still avoiding and not addressing my grief.  This lingering sadness from what is normally a celebratory experience has forced me to reflect and stew and to look inside my heart and to make an effort confront my sorrow.  This music has given me an understanding voice that I can relate to and that I can learn from.  This is the power of music.  Oh, and by the way, if you weren't there, you MISSED OUT.

photo by Nicki @ Doug Fir Lounge 5/27/12

Thank you Stephanie


  1. beautifully written. isn't that the amazing thing about music? you can connect so deeply with a song or a sentiment expressed in it that it can overwhelm normal thought and functioning.

    also, YES that 88 echo & the bunnymen show rocked. i didn't miss out...

  2. You should have warned me. I am glad I missed the show. This is good writing, but it's a theme I have a hard time dealing with. I don't know how I will ever not. Mothers are a wonder. I can't write this without crying...