For the last several years, if the Denver indie scene has had an It Girl, it’s been Tammy Ealom. In a city more traditionally focused on roots rock and Americana, Ealom’s high-mod go-go style and sharp sensibility for psychedelic-tinged pop songs have endeared her to critics and audiences alike. Her band, Dressy Bessy, consistently wins critical praise in the national press, while Ealom and company have simultaneously been featured in fashion spreads in the local mainstream daily paper—Ealom sporting her vintage ‘60s outfits (which Ealom has turned into a sideline gig selling on eBay for cash) and camping for the cameras. In 2004, The Denver Post named them the Best of the Underground, while they’ve risen in stature to become an internationally touring band.
But for all that Dressy Bessy deserves the attention (and they do), it’s hard not to question if it isn’t in part due to the fact that Dressy Bessy has survived in Denver at all. Once part of the Denver hub of Elephant 6, connecting the band to Athens, Georgia, and the indie pop scene as a whole, Ealom and company have been going it alone for a while. Ealom got her start in music in Denver’s short-lived but locally praised 40th Day. When that band broke up, she helped form the earliest incarnation of the Minders, who, following their initial burst of success in the indie pop world, left Denver for the Northwest. Ealom had already left that band to work on her own project with her husband John Hill—the guitarist for the Apples in Stereo—and newly met cohorts, Rob Greene and Darren Albert. When Dressy Bessy formed out of this combo, it wasn’t such a big deal for Hill to split his time between two bands. But then Robert Schneider got fed up with Denver’s apathetic music scene and took the Apples east, to Kentucky, while Hill stayed behind in Denver with Ealom and Dressy Bessy (though maintaining his role in the Apples). Following in the wake of the general dissolution (or, at least, the weakening of bonds) of the Elephant 6 collective, Dressy Bessy became Denver’s sole champion of psychedelic-tinged pop.
The band’s had its fair share of bumpy patches, as well. After releasing three well-received LPs and an odds-and-sods collection, Dressy Bessy found itself without label representation when Kindercore went belly-up. Then, founding drummer Albert decided to leave the band. Still, Ealom, Hill, and Greene persevered—all without abandoning Denver as their home base—adding new drummer Craig Gilbert, continuing to tour independently, scoring spots on television and movie soundtracks, and finally landing on new a label home, Transdreamer.
Which brings us to the wizened Dressy Bessy’s fourth full-length, Electrified. And judging by the sounds presented here, despite all the hurdles Dressy Bessy has leapt, the band hasn’t skipped a beat. Electrified picks up where the band left off with 2003’s self-titled disc, continuing to explore the more muscular garage rock sound at their core, rather than returning to the more airy pop of Pink Hearts Yellow Moons or Sound Go Round. Whereas Ealom was once revered for her similarities to Amelia Fletcher’s bands, it seems she’s dropped the thin, high vocals for good, opting for a tougher sound that has a decidedly more punky flavor. Or, if motivations are to be extrapolated from merely listening to songs, it may be that Dressy Bessy is trying to ditch the straightjacket of the “bubblegum pop” label.
The only real problem with that is that there’s nothing wrong with bubblegum, and Dressy Bessy did it well from the start. Still, it’s understandable that the band would want to draw in some more of the energy of its live shows, which are always fully rocking, and this style shift does give Ealom some more flexibility in her range. But if the chipper, twee sounds of “I Found Out” and “Jenny Come On” were your initial draws to Dressy Bessy, then you might find the more punky direction a bit confounding.
On the whole, though, the same talents for pop hooks and fuzzy guitar jaunts haven’t changed. Ealom’s lyrics have always been airy and silly, no matter what vocal timbre is used, and on the title track “Electrified”, the combination of vocal and compositional simplicity still works its charm, despite sounding more like Blondie than Talulah Gosh. Even a track like “Stop Foolin’”, which burns along a straight-faced early ‘80s punk guitar line, still has a grin underneath that undercuts the seriousness of Ealom’s newly downcast themes. But this is still pop music, and instead of embracing the candy floss twee aesthetic, Dressy Bessy is balancing pop and punk influences on a finer line than ever, making songs like “Side 2” and “It Happens All the Time” familiar for the references to a completely different past, but one no less vital. And just to throw one out to the old fans, Dressy Bessy ends Electrified on a sweet note with “Who’d Stop the Rain”, a light and breezy song that proves the band can still produce such lovely pop gems as if by afterthought.
Perhaps the key to Dressy Bessy’s survival rests on its ability to roll with change. The original Elephant 6 collective has diverged and followed different paths, and it should come as no surprise that Dressy Bessy’s sound has evolved as well. Ealom still maintains her love of bright mod fashions and simple pop pleasures, and the band is still all about having a good time, but if their essentialist tastes have embraced a tougher rock stance and some punkier edge, then there’s just as much argument to be made for good punk-pop as there is for bubblegum. And they’re still the best thing going in Denver.
// Notes from the Road
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