Dum Dum Girls

Round Three.

It was an odd year. With music a less dominant part of my life these days, what I came into contact with tended to be directly related to what I was writing or talking about for DIY or FFS. I heard about a a heap of great albums (I will never tire of great music writing), but the amount of pure listening I did was far than it has been. Which is why, as I sit with headphones over my ears and a full pack of chocolate buttons melting in my mouth, I’m finding it hard to decide. When the albums you’ve loved in a year have been far less listened to, the amount you can critically discern between them is a lot less than it might otherwise have been. But here we go.

Dum Dum Girls – Only In Dreams

After ‘Coming Down’ swept across the blogs, many, notably myself, were somewhat jazzed about the idea of a epic-scale, anthemic gloom-rock approach from the L.A. four-piece. We didn’t get it. What we got was an album that embraced a true idea of evolution in sound – a step along the girl-group, surf-punk, fuzz-friendly Ascent of Man chart if you will. It refined, retuned and ultimately improved in every way on the group’s debut and, with ‘Coming Down’ as centrepiece and ‘Hold Your Hand’ as finale, indicated what the next image of Dum Dum Girls might look like too.

Dum Dum Girls – Coming Down

Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for my Halo

This was a grower, and by “grower” I mean that I was completely unimpressed, put it aside in some distant corner of my iTunes library, lost the CD copy and forgot it had been released at all. Then, four months later, it was played at work and I realised how brilliant it is. I mean just great. That there is a grower. Mixing experimental ambience with the drive of classic rock, Smoke Ring… is a wonder, a beautiful comedown. The whole thing envelops you like warm rain, Vile’s voice soothing as drums pound and guitars chime all around you. Easy listening in the best possible way.

Kurt Vile – Baby’s Arms

Future of the Left – Polymers are Forever

There are some certitudes in life that we must be aware of. Examples: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction; Alan Rickman is the best; any Future of the Left release will make it onto my end of year list. EP though it may be, this is still one of the best collections of music this year. Maniacally leaping between styles (even within songs) throughout and even more maniacally approaching lyrical output (relationships, Joe Pesci, international relations) this is everything I could want from a FotL release: ferocity, insanity, hilarity.

Future of the Left – Polymers are Forever

Peter Stampfel and Jeffrey Lewis – Come on Board

I promise I’m not being (too) wilfully obscure with this one. Yes, it may only have been available from the pair’s live shows, and yes it might have taken me a month to find the album artwork, but you can find it online. Somewhere. Whatever the difficulties, this is most definitely worth its placing. This the sound of two kindred spirits separated only by their particular decade of musical popularity. Each complements the other’s own brand of weirdness spectacularly, with Stampfel’s gurgling squeals and Lewis’ croaky drawl mixing to make the best set of badly sung anti-folk tales I’ve heard all year.

Peter Stampfel and Jeffrey Lewis – He’s Been Everywhere

The Antlers – Burst Apart

I don’t like this much as Hospice. But that was never really going to happen, was it? Frankly, the best complement I can personally give Burst Apart is that it isn’t Hospice and it still ended up as one of my albums of the year. A definite step away from the “concept album”-as-concept album, The Antlers treated this one as an experiment, simplifying into indie-rock (‘Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out’), playing at being their heroes (the Kid A/Amnesiac-isms of ‘Parentheses’) or messing with new genres (the distorted soul of ‘Putting the Dog to Sleep’) and succeeding at each and every one. This doesn’t need to be Hospice anymore, it’s brilliant in and of itself.

The Antlers – Parentheses

Radiohead – The King of Limbs

I genuinely can’t understand the backlash against this one. I know, I know, I’m a Radiohead douche but seriously, how can this be a bad album? “Not as good as In Rainbows,” fine, but a bad album? Nah. This is complex, beautiful songcraft with a spectacular generic twist halfway through – what introduces itself as a beat-heavy album, some naturalistic iteration of the aforementioned Kid A/Amnesiac era, between ‘Feral’ and ‘Lotus Flower’ becomes a more vocal affair, and with a hilarious non-sequitur punchline for the more desperate of us fanboys (that line in ‘Separator’) to boot. Time will prove people wrong on this one.

Radiohead – Separator

Bill Callahan – Apocalypse

Smog and Bill Callahan have been skirting around the peripheries of my music collection for years now, but have always seemed too revered, and perhaps too obscure, to simply dive into without a useful introduction. How kind of Bill to do that for me. Apocalypse is simultaneously traditional and experimental in its take on country-folk, sounding unmistakenly American, but in a distinctly literary fashion – this is more exploration (hence the experimentation) of a sound rather than a retreading of it. It makes for an album that’s as intriguing for its context as its overt content, and, by association, Callahan’s back catalogue looks just as enticing to me now.

Bill Callahan – Drover

Other Lives – Tamer Animals

There haven’t been many new bands in recent years that have grabbed me, shaken me awake and metaphorically said ‘LISTEN TO HOW AWESOME WE SOUND!’ like Other Lives did for me in 2011. Their music sounds so magnificently grand, so all-encompassing in its earthiness that it seems paradoxically unearthly (captured beautifully in their video for ‘For 12’). Clutching at the heady ambitions of classical music and expressive soundtrack work and roping it together with grounded, traditional folk sounds should simply not be this effortless, but they soar together somewhere in between in wonderful fashion. I need more of this in my life, and quickly at that.

Other Lives – Dark Horse

Timber Timbre – Creep On Creepin’ On

If Kurt Vile was a grower, this was a revelation. I was actively irritated with this album at first. Where were the folk creaks and strains I loved so much from before? Why was Taylor Kirk crooning? And what THE HELL was a saxophone doing there? It can’t be overstated that I’m an idiot. As Kirk himself sings on ‘Black Water’, ‘All I need is some sunshine.’ Once I saw that light, there was no turning back. Timber Timbre’s exercise in creepifying the sounds of old-fashioned pop is remarkable, showing the talent they have for subtly twisting the familiar into unsettling shapes in a completely new way.

Timber Timbre – Woman

Josh T. Pearson – Last of the Country Gentlemen

This started at the top of my list and never left. It’s simply one of the greatest albums I’ve ever heard – and I’ve put enough thought into that to say it without pretence. I could expend mountains of hyperbole to explain that, but since Pearson himself kept it so simple, it would seem false to do so (that and I’ve done it elsewhere). What I will say is that this album can take your breath away, such is the depth of the emotions, it can drain you, such is the starkness of Pearson’s troubles, and it can (if I’m any example) completely affirm any pretentious belief you may have in the transcendent power of music. It may not be straightforwardly enjoyable, but by fuck is it satisfying, beautiful, devastating and incredible.

Josh T. Pearson – Woman, When I’ve Raised Hell…

Dum Dum Girls have always interested me. They seem very concerned with a pop aesthetic, sonically and visually, despite making distinctly underground-inflected music. The echoes of negative space were the defining feature of their debut, but the songwriting was tight, catchy stuff – a dichotomy stark enough to perhaps hamper the push into the mainstream market as much as might have been expected. Their second album, Only in Dreams, pushes the two halves closer together and, in its best moments, reveals a mastery of the combination, leading to a glimpse of not only what the band has become, but what they could yet blossom into.

Only a few years ago, the very idea of an established band giving samples of their new music away for free seemed like patent madness. With the public fall of Napster and subsequent rise of peer-to-peer file sharing, free downloads were very much the enemy for the kind of band who expected to be making any real money from their music. Skip to 2011 and it would seem just as mad not to do the self-same thing. Whether a desperate plea for pre-orders, a “selfless” reminder to fans or even just a consequence of the rest of the industry following a similar path, it’s difficult to find an artist unwilling to freely share part of their work as a pre-release bonus – Los Angeles’ Dum Dum Girls being no exception. ‘Coming Down’, a six and a half minute epic lathered with singer Dee Dee’s plaintive vocals, booming drums and a truly spine-tingling crescendo is a perfect example of the power of this new form of album advertising. The blogosphere responded in typical foaming-at-the-mouth fashion, clamouring to acclaim this new elegiac direction as fast as possible and fans responded similarly. The only problem then lies in actually listening to Only In Dreams, the album it lies at the centre of, because Dum Dum Girls could well be accused of false advertising.

The band have certainly taken a new approach to their music, but ‘Coming Down’ simply isn’t representative of that. Where debut effort I Will Be bristled with brittle punk trapped in an echoing void, Only In Dreams pushes its guitar work to the forefront; smooth, melodic riffs acting as a perfect match for harmonies and choruses more akin to classic rock ‘n’ roll than the spikier influences of previous work. ‘Bedroom Eyes’ is (Smiths covers notwithstanding) the catchiest song the four-piece have produced, its beautifully repetitive chorus boring its way into your subconscious at speed, whilst handclap magnet ‘Heartbeat’ and short, sharp, surfy opener ‘Always Looking’ tail just behind. This isn’t to say the band have forgotten the strengths they already possessed however as ‘Just A Creep’s simplistic, signature guitar line attests to. These are excellent songs, more often than not performing the potentially disastrous balancing act of matching art with pop in admirable fashion.

But then along comes ‘Coming Down’, a song as seemingly ill-fitting in the context as it is brilliant. This is the track that could have seemed like the perfect anomaly, an indication of future evolution and a marker of the very real talent the band have. As it stands, it’s both of these things, but is also saddled with the marker of an advert – the image the band wanted to portray and very much don’t live up to in reality. The only real connection can be drawn with closer ‘Hold Your Hand’, a shimmering torchburner that matches ‘Coming Down’ for emotion if not technique. As it stands, Only In Dreams is a very competent evolution, an album that draws on what was acclaimed in the past and updates it with new, interesting styles that append it wonderfully. Dum Dum Girls are, as of this album, an excellent band, rather than a prospectively excellent one – musicians in a scene obsessed with rehashing the past that seem to understand their own music as well as that from which they borrow. What this album is not, however, is a record full of songs like ‘Coming Down’, a fact which may well disappoint the many who were so interested after its early release, but which raises the stakes for album three in a very interesting way.

Originally written for DIY