What can you say about Dressy Bessy that hasn’t already been repeated?
The Denver foursome with ties to the overly name-checked Elephant 6 collective has been quietly putting out sugary, 1960s-style fuzzed-out guitar records for several years. Quietly, that is, until this year’s South By Southwest music festival, where critics and the casual music fan started to take notice. It’s funny how fickle success can be.
It’s not like front woman Tammy Ealom and company started doing something drastically different. The formula has always been fairly simple: timeless girly pop funneled through fuzzy psychedelic-tinged guitar with an indie rock edge. At the end of the day, the Go-Gos won out over Sleater-Kinney. And that was just fine. In fact, there was a sort of celebratory feel to the band, the joy of being free and unconfined by expectations — almost like a child.
But on the their third full-length (and self-titled) release, Dressy Bessy is all grown up. Ealom hasn’t literally — by all recent reports — given up the skirt and go-go boots, but this is a band dressed smartly for success. Spit out your bubble gum kids, this may hurt a little. But it is, as they say, good for you.
Right out of the gate, Ealom and guitarist John Hill — who pulls double duty with former Denver stable mates Apples in Stereo — are going for the jugular. The pop sheen is still there on opening track “Just One More”, but there’s also a sense of urgency that was missing from previous efforts. Hill’s guitar work is sloppily precise; Ealom’s lyrics are endearing but have a new edge. This is a band that has taken ownership of their sound. The familiar comparisons don’t quite work anymore.
“I’m on a massive high”, Ealom sings on the second track, “The Things That You Say You Do”, and is she ever. Hill’s guitar sound is fatter than anything Dressy Bessy has ever done and Ealom’s voice calmly walks through all the band’s old tricks with the kind of confidence you would expect from someone growing into one of the best lyricists working today. “If it’s uncool to be polished / Baby, I don’t want to talk”, Ealom continues on “Baby Six String”, a song that is indeed polished, but in all the right ways. The same can be said for “This May Hurt (a Little)”. Hill’s rhythms have always been deceptively complex, but he’s never been showcased quite like he is on Dressy Bessy. For all of Ealom’s gifts, the band simply wouldn’t function as cohesively as they do without Hill’s stabilizing force.
Longtime fans may be put off a bit at first by the harsher sounds on this record. The hum-a-longs here aren’t quite as obvious. The band has also abandoned the lighter, breezier songs that dotted their two previous efforts. Instead, there is a carefully controlled chaos filling up the empty spaces. There’s not as much room to breathe; not as much open territory to help navigate your way from verse to hook. In one sense, that means the record isn’t as innately listenable. But in another sense, it’s much more rewarding. Nothing, as they say, ever comes easily in this life. Dressy Bessy, like a lot of under-the-radar acts, knows that as well as anyone. And on songs like “Hey May” that sort of world weariness comes through via Ealom’s mature lyrics and restrained vocal performance: “Hey, May, we’ll tie a string out around the garden / Little small torn bag marked, ‘need them, want them’ / What are you going to do when the world turns in on you / Hey, check it out, think of me once in a while / Did it make you happy / Did it come in handy / But, of course, you said it’s gonna hurt me more this way”.
Yet the differences between this record and, say, Little Music, shouldn’t be overstated. There’s still plenty to smile about here. But saccharine is so much easier to swallow when mixed with something a little bitter. It’s those contrasts that make everything in life a little better. Whereas Dressy Bessy divvied out the sugar by the bagful before, they’re measuring it with teaspoons now. Still, if you like your coffee black, Dressy Bessy probably isn’t for you. But if you enjoy nothing more than a warm, smooth cup of expertly brewed, time-tested java with just the right mix of cream and sugar, then there will be much on the band’s latest effort to savor.