Over the past few years, several celebrated new bands have cropped up releasing albums rooted in ’60s girl pop and garage rock. Unfortunately, the celebration ends about as quickly as it comes, leaving sophomore efforts to go virtually ignored. You don’t have to be a member of the Vivian Girls to realize that there is a real conundrum with regard to diminishing returns with these groups. For as many great albums that this style has given us recently, it does seem like a bit of an artistic dead end. The Dum Dum Girls emerged last year with a striking debut I Will Be, which followed the mold cast by this relatively recent movement. The band seems aware of this challenge, and although they don’t quite buck the trend themselves, they do deliver a solid follow-up, Only in Dreams, and offer a few clues as to where they may be headed next.
Only in Dreams presents the Dum Dum Girls with a polished sound and added dimensions. What keeps the album from transcending – or at least living up to – its predecessor is the songwriting itself, which just hasn’t grown in proportion to the album’s production. It leaves the listener with the impression that the record is supposed to be a more “mature” follow-up, but it’s lacking the songs to really back the claim. It’s an awkward situation, and it’s all the more frustrating given singer Dee Dee’s voice, which certainly has the power to pull off the kind of transformation the band seems like they’re heading toward. There was a certain knowingness to I Will Be; it, for the most part, sidestepped the naivety present in a band like Best Coast. They seem to have the self-awareness to break free from the limitations of their sub-genre, but Only in Dreams is only a tentative step.
None of this is to say that Only in Dreams isn’t good; in fact there are a handful of really strong moments on it. What a chorus like “Oh, I need your bedroom eyes,” from “Bedroom Eyes,” lacks in depth, it more than makes up for in melodic prowess, augmented by the strong voice driving it home. Not only that, but in a song like “Hold Your Hand,” there is a real poignancy delivered in seemingly surface level lyrics like “Oh, I wish it wasn’t true/ But there’s nothing I can do except hold your hand/ till the very end.” Dee Dee, having recently lost her mother, brings a very tangible weight to each line and it is truly moving. It’s a brilliant song and a chilling closer the record. Generally speaking, it’s the songs that deal most candidly with this loss that are the real highlights of the album; a bittersweet victory, I’m sure. These are the moments that take Only in Dreams into the heart of Dee Dee and away from some the more generic territory she has a tendency to veer toward on other parts of the record.
So, even if the majority of Only in Dreams may not be a huge advancement, it is still progress. Going back to the original question: How does a band like the Dum Dum Girls avoid slipping out relevance following the success of their debut? The band doesn’t seem to have the answer just yet, but they’re trying and they definitely seem more likely than most of their peers to deliver on album three. And although their second record may not be as charming as their first, it still holds up pretty nicely.
Stream: Dum Dum Girls – “Bedroom Eyes”