I can’t help but digest the brand-new LP by noise pop sirens Dum Dum Girls in the light of my interview with Simon Reynolds back in June. In the midst of our discussion of the ideas behind his book Retromania (the rise of atemporality in the digital over-information age, the decline of futurist impulses in pop music, etc.), I asked him if rock was too spent as a creative force to produce anything truly innovative these days. Reynolds quite astutely pointed out that the current crop of ‘60s-by-way-of-the-‘80s-by-way-of-the-‘00s revivalist artists really don’t even rate innovation as a concern. They don’t care that these influences have already been wrung dry, or that they are offering little more than a third-generation photocopy of the original source material.
Dum Dum Girls are among the most lauded of these time-lost twentysomethings harkening back to music made in the mid-’80s by fringe-sporting Brits and paisley-dabbed Americans who themselves adored Phil Spector-produced girl groups and trashy garage rock as immutable gospel (as exemplified by the Jesus and Mary Chain, arguably noise pop’s only truly visionary act). But is there anything to distinguish Dee Dee Penny’s leather-jacket-and-stockings brainchild from all the other fuzz-blasted, three-chord retro lovers milling about in today’s indie rock scene? Aside from Penny’s motor-revving vibrato, precious little, as the group’s new album Only in Dreams—the first featuring contributions from the complete live band—offers nothing you have never heard before, in combinations that were already well-worn two decades ago.
What makes Dum Dum Girls satisfying in small doses is they can hit those base pop pleasure centers in the back of any nerdy record collector’s brain with its reverberating haze of guitar distortion, heart-thumping drumbeats, and Penny’s head-turning voice. However, the Girls have always been too defined by their influences and restricted by the same unambitious, dead-simple verse-chorus-bridge songs structures, turning any prolonged listen into a “So what?” situation upon its conclusion. The only new aesthetic development on Only in Dreams is a bigger, fuller studio production (first attempted on February’s He Gets Me High EP) that oddly makes the band’s tunes resemble glossy pop-rock hits of the ‘80s. In the context of this album’s sonic stamp, Penny’s full-bodied swagger and throaty “whoa-ohh oh-ohhs” uncannily resemble those of Pretenders frontwoman Chrissie Hynde, and the harmony-drenched compositions on numerous occasions recall those ultimate wide-eyed Reagan-era ‘60s worshippers the Bangles, albeit without their ear-burrowing melodic charms.
That comparison accentuates another issue with Only in Dreams. The saving grace of any unadventurous pop classicism is an indelible tune—it’s what made folks ranging from Lenny Kravitz to Oasis able to compete with pop music’s latest trends at their individual commercial heights. Only in Dreams is bereft of original hooks that linger in the memory beyond the LP’s runtime. What little there are to distinguish songs from one another or its inspirations—the galloping rhythms of “Wasted Away”, the rave-up chorus of “Always Looking”—are fleeting and often still remind you too much of something else. About the only aspects that might make one want to pick it over a Best Coast or Vivian Girls release is if they want a weightier, more confidently executed record hosting less songs about marijuana and cats.
Although similar concerns regarding derivativeness, a lack of a distinctive sonic identity, and a total disinterest in exploring beyond garage-pop formalism could be raised about the band’s past efforts, one could at least tell most of the songs apart before, due to better hooks that popped out amidst the starker lo-fi production. Here, everything is layered and burnished into an eardrum-blasting sameness. There are no standouts or outright bombs, just 10 Dum Dum Girls songs; no more, no less. While it can be comforting that the album delivers what people expect from the band, it may not be as fulfilling as you might hope. Only in Dreams is emblematic of an entire strain of prosaic, backward-looking indie rock that’s given too much leniency contrary to what it actually has to offer. At the very least, maybe it’s time to call a moratorium on cribbing beats from nearly-half-century-old Ronettes singles.