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Band to Watch: Dum Dum Girls' Sixties-Inspired Girl-Group Pop

'The main topic of the record is a sense of longing,' says lead singer Dee Dee Penny

August 31, 2011 12:35 PM ET
dum dum girls band to watch
Sandy Vu, Bambi, Kristin 'Dee Dee' Gundred and Jules of Dum Dum Girls
Dimitri Hakke/Redferns

Click to listen to the Dum Dum Girls' "Coming Down"

Who: The girl-group-harmonizing fuzz-pop project of 28-year-old, Bay Area-suburb-raised Dee Dee Penny, who has recorded under the Dum Dum Girls moniker since 2008. She started out alone on homemade low-fidelity MP3, vinyl and CD-R releases, then got help from a few friends on a couple more visible records. On Only In Dreams (out September 27th on Sub Pop; download "Coming Down" or stream it above), she's settled in with the all-lady Dum Dum configuration (guitarist Jules, bassist Bambi, drummer Sandy) that she performs with live.

Striking A Balance: While the act's troublegum sound has been evolving toward clarity – if not exactly polish – all along, Dee Dee's personal lyrics and often upfront-belted vocals make Only In Dreams easily the most direct Dum Dum collection yet. The blankets of distortion and reverb are still there, but they no longer bury the lyrics. Dee Dee calls herself "a private recluse when I'm not performing," so taking on a pseudonym helped her navigate early stage fright. More recently, the black vintage dresses Dum Dum Girls all wear during gigs have provided visual security. "I always loved bands who have larger-than-life personas, and seem mysterious," Dee Dee says. So she's a major Shangri-Las fan, but she also loves Jesus and Mary Chain noise. Lately, she's learning to traverse the tension tightrope between obscuring emotion and being heard. "As time goes by, I'm more comfortable," she says. "It seems silly to hide my singing."

Bedtime Stories: Dee Dee is sitting on a bed on the album cover, and if "Teardrops On My Pillow" counts, beds show up in at least five of the 10 songs. Which partly explains why the record is called Only In Dreams. "Think of all the songs about dreams," explains the singer, who considers classic for-hire songwriters of the Brill Building era role models. "The main topic of the record is a sense of longing." Part of that longing involves frequent separation from her husband, Brandon Welchez of indie distorto-pop band the Crocodiles, when one or the other is on tour. And oddly, the first song Dee Dee ever wrote concerned how Brandon likes to sleep – particularly a few years ago, when he was a substitute teacher who'd nap every afternoon upon arriving home.

Mom, In Memoriam: But Only In Dreams' even more overwhelming inspiration – for the haunted "Wasted Away," for the six-and-a-half-minute slow stretch "Coming Down," for "Hold Your Hand," which moves from "Be My Baby" drumbeats to a Velvet Underground & Nico drone to vocals channeling Chrissie Hynde –  was Dee Dee's mother. She passed away around Halloween last year, Dee Dee says, "after a year of serious decline." So the album is in some ways "about coming to terms with death for the first time," about mortality: "Not only was it my mother, it was something I lived with, and watched."  Her mom's Sixties-music tastes echo through the band's sound, and she had been a presence in another way, too – high school and college photos of her adorned covers of Dum Dum Girls' 2008 EP Yours Alone and 2010 debut album I Will Be. "It's priceless at this point," Dee Dee says, "that I have her on two of my records."

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