When Buttercups Met Cinnamon
Okay, okay! I give, already! I submit to Dressy Bessy and its huge tiny shimmery grimy pop music. Uncle!
Dressy Bessy is a Denver band that is loosely affiliated with what used to be known as the Elephant 6 “collective”. Elephant 6 used to get a lot of press, back when Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel and The Apples (In Stereo) were all busting out with albums every year, each one urging the others further afield in their mission to bring weirder and wilder 1960s noises and 1990s experimentation together. This label—which some within the camp have been trying to shake off—is more a group of loosely connected friends than an actual musical genre, but what it boils down to for Elephant 6 bands is this: Pop = Good, Psychedelia = Better, Psychedelic Pop = Perfection. This is not necessarily an original philosophy, but it’s pretty much true, and these bands released some albums that set the late ‘90s indiescene on its collective ear.
But now everything has changed. OTC has joined the ranks of “dearly departed” by splitting into two equal parts: Will Cullen Hart’s amazingly sloppy/tight ensemble Circulatory System, and Bill Doss’s über-pop project called the Sunshine Fix (which released their first stunning/confusing full-length a couple of weeks ago; I’ll review it as soon as I understand it). Jeff Mangum is taking his own sweet time on the new Neutral Milk Hotel album, and the Apples have been taking a big ol’ chill pill while Robert Schneider collaborates by phone with XTC’s Andy Partridge.
Meanwhile, it has fallen to the “second-tier” Elephant 6 bands to keep the flag flying. Last year, Of Montreal came correct with Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse (which is nowhere near as awful as its title), and Beulah released the really wonderful The Coast Is Never Clear. This year will also see new records by Elf Power, Marshmallow Coast, and maybe another one by Of Montreal. (There’s also a rumor about a new album by the Apples, but one learns not to hope too much.) But first up in the new year: Dressy Bessy’s Sound Go Round.
To which, as I admitted up front, I have completely knuckled under. Dressy Bessy’s first real album, Pink Hearts Yellow Moons, can be entirely summed up in its title; it sounds like romance, it sounds like sugary cereal, it’s both. Tammy Ealom, the singer and lyricist of Dressy Bessy, is pretty clearly the mastermind of the band, but here’s where it gets complicated: not only does she share the basic sensibility of The Apples (In Stereo) frontman Robert Schneider—which can be stated as “The Beatles and the Beach Boys sure were good, but the Archies might have been better”—but she shares a guitar player with the Apples, John Hill. And, of course, Hill and Ealom are also romantically involved. The other two members of Dressy Bessy are the talented rhythm section of Darren Albert on drums and Rob Greene on bass.
There’s no other way to say it: Tammy Ealom is one of the most unassuming and perfect songwriters in modern pop. She doesn’t sound like she gets out much, but it’s not like Brian Wilson did any club-hopping either. These songs are the kind of things that people who do nothing but listen to records in their room all day long for their entire childhood write—there, but for the grace of having no musical talent, go I. This is the genius of Dressy Bessy’s bubble-gum pop: it makes the personal into the universal, and assumes that if there’s one lonely funny quirky person in the world, that there are at least a few more out there who want to hear songs by that person.
Like all true pop superstars, Ealom only has two subjects: love and music. (Oh, and one song about flowers.) We get the happy: the opening song, “I Saw Cinnamon”, is about the perfect boy: “I saw Cinnamon / Rockin’ down the row / He had his arms full of melody / Fa so la ti do”. We get the sad: the way Ealom delivers the lines “Let’s hear another song / About the girl who’s seen it all / She’s seventeen coming up on eighty” can’t help but transport you right back into being eleven in your bedroom listening to albums on a rainy Saturday afternoon eating peanut butter-and-banana-and-raisin sandwiches. And we get the happy/sad: “Maybe Laughter” turns on the crucial lyric “This somebody makes you laugh girl / Is someone who who’d make you cry still”. Music and love are empowering, are melancholy, are everything. I’m in love with Tammy Ealom’s ultra-adorable vision of the world: if it ain’t comin’ out of the record-player speakers, it just ain’t real.
But all this cuteness never gets oppressive, thanks to the fact that Dressy Bessy is a band rather than just a singer-songwriter project. John Hill punches these songs up with a grungy Nuggets-style guitar sound, which is a fine thing. Too many bands aiming at a ‘60s pop sound forget that Brian Jones was the true hero of the British Invasion. And the closing song on this album, “Carry On”, features the most insanely funky rhythm breaks on any album I’ve heard recently, courtesy of Greene and Albert. Little touches here and there make this record something beautiful: a Zombies-flavored organ whine here, the Herman’s Hermits bounce on “Just Being Me”. They’re never less than tight, and at their best, like “There’s a Girl” and “All These Colors”, they’re world-beaters.
Go ahead, dismiss Sound Go Round as “merely” a pop album with girl/boy songs. But do so at your peril. This album kicks as much ass as a really good junior high basketball team. I can think of no higher compliment.
// Notes from the Road
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