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With their self-deprecating petticoat name and the arresting, harmonized choruses of their debut I Will Be, the Dum Dum Girls have made a statement that’s both obvious and well-earned: This is girl-group music. It’s an ambition that tips its hat at a long and great continuum, ranging from the Shangri-Las through the Go-Go’s to the Vivian Girls. If the term “girl group” is inherently patriarchal and dismissive, the bands have always mitigated it by using the “girl” compulsively, and Dum Dum Girls, to be sure, are no exception.
Dee Dee (Kristin Gundred) founded the group as a one-woman recording project in 2008, released a few singles, and experimented with different lineups before staffing the current all-female quartet. She’s proved herself a quick study of the genre’s tropes—brevity (I Will Be clocks in at less than 30 minutes); a sound that undercuts the sunlit harmonies with a shadowy, menacing edge; vocal delivery that seamlessly shifts from wistful, Dear Diary whispers (“Baby Don’t Go”) to icy cool (“It Only Takes One Night”); and a heroine who is fiercely proud and protective of her beau. Compare the Angels’ classic “My Boyfriend’s Back” to this repeated line from I Will Be’s “Everybody’s Out”: “My baby is better than you.”
Unfortunately, another common characteristic of girl groups has been the looming presence of a creepy Svengali type—think of Phil Spector’s demented domination over Ronnie Spector, or Kim Fowley’s handsy management of the Runaways. Despite being one the key progenitors of the girl-group sound, Sire Records co-founder Richard Gotterher, thankfully, was nothing of the sort. Dee Dee sought Gotterher’s aid in producing I Will Be because of his impressive body of work—he wrote “My Boyfriend’s Back” and “I Want Candy” (performed by the Strangeloves, featuring Gotterher and some friends pretending to be Australian) and kept the Brill Building girl-group sound alive for decades by producing seminal albums for Blondie, the Go-Go’s, and recently the Raveonettes. Gotterher’s presence is noticeable on the haunting “Rest of Our Lives,” on which Dee Dee waxes romantic from a teen’s perspective—but in a weary way that implies no happy ending.
The album’s ridiculously catchy highlight is “Jail La La,” wherein the protagonist has landed in the pokey. Unlike Blondie’s “X Offender,” though, this hitch doesn’t sound like fun. Dee Dee sings, “Oh God, how did I get here/I do not know/I just woke up at this strange show/This woman is clearly out of her mind/She’s covered in shit and high as a kite.” It’s as if Dee Dee thinks all the chorus’ airy la la las will lift her out of prison. They might not, but they certainly earn her band a spot in the girl-group pantheon.
Dum Dum Girls perform tonight at DC9 with Male Bonding and Detox Retox.