Style and substance. The tension between the two has pervaded and, in many ways, defined the output of the Dum Dum Girls during their brief career. Their first LP, I Will Be (March 2010) and follow up EP, He Gets Me High (March 2011), were collections of tight, raucous tunes that showcased the group’s consciously cultivated girl group/punk image. They were enjoyable albums with a distinctive (if familiar) style but the songs tended to blend together and, overall, lacked the personal touches and unique voice necessary to elevate these albums to greatness. Indeed, the most memorable thing about both albums was the style of the group itself, rather than the individual songs.
That all changed on their superlative 2011 follow up, Only in Dreams, in which lead singer Dee Dee mined the depths of her depression over her mother’s death and her long tour related separation from her husband to create the most personal and moving songs of her career. Ironically enough, the best songs on the album are the ones that depart most significantly from the band’s established style, allowing the audience brief glimpses through their protective sonic veneer to the raw emotion lurking beneath.
This tension between the band’s established style and the more personal material on Dreams was echoed in their performance at the Black Cat on February 12th. On their older tracks, the group seemed somewhat disengaged, playing through their set in a skillful but blunt fashion that mostly failed to resonate with their assembled fans. But on tracks from Dreams, everything about the band’s performance changed. On these tracks, Dee Dee sang with real energy, letting her feelings bleed forth and swinging effortlessly from depression to desire, passion to pathos. The band picked up on her cues, becoming more animated and, unsurprisingly, the audience was inspired to do the same. On stand out tracks like “Always Looking,” “Wasting Away,” and “Bedroom Eyes,” Dee Dee had the audience in the palm of her hand, swaying, applauding and singing along exactly on cue. Indeed, the set culminated with the devastating “Coming Down,” after which there might not have been a (metaphorical) dry eye in the house.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that my impression of the show may have been influenced by confirmation bias since my thoughts on the Girls’ performance so neatly parallel my thoughts about their albums. However, after seeing them live, I can’t help but think that this young band is at a critical juncture in their career and that their next album will go a long way towards determining whether Dreams was an impassioned outlier or a harbinger of bigger things to come.