In a recent interview with Bandcamp, Dummy guitarist Joe Trainor confessed, “We want to sound bad.” He jests, sort of, but to understand what he’s getting at requires a certain degree of investment in vibe over state of the art technology. The lineage of bands from which they descend—Silver Apples, The Velvet Underground, The United States of America and, a few decades later, Stereolab—never made records marked for being sonically pristine (well, maybe Dots and Loops), but they still sound amazing when you put them on simply because those artists were able to capture something that a six-figure budget can’t. It’s a bit like that oft-eyerolled “warmth” that’s used to describe the sound of analog recordings—an audiophile can pick apart the reasons why that doesn’t actually sound better, but what’s quantifiable and perceivable aren’t always so easy to compare.
Which is a long way of saying Dummy have those vibes down pat on Mandatory Enjoyment. The L.A. group’s full-length debut bridges the distance between the pop songs and drone pieces on their first and second EPs, respectively, while occupying a sonic space that’s neither scruffily lo-fi nor flawlessly sparkling. There’s a textural quality to their hypnotic drone-pop, big on guitar jangle that’s almost percussive, buzzing organ tones and driving rhythms—all of which sound rich, full and remarkable.
It helps that the structures Dummy build to house those sonic elements are at once fascinating and sound, employing repetition in the way the Velvets or Neu! might, but in the service of more slowly evolving pop songs. The repetition becomes a conduit for transformation in a way, like in how the recurring bassline and rhythm in “X-Static Blanket” offer a canvas over which their synth effects can spiral out into a joyful drift, or how the bongo beat of “Final Weapon” gradually escalates into an endorphin rush symphony of moving parts. Then again, sometimes, like on “Daffodils,” they simply just find a way to write the richest one-chord pop song they possibly can.
The sum of Mandatory Enjoyment‘s parts is deceptively simple; not necessarily minimalistic or spare, but employing restraint and understatement in strategic ways. Making a perfect pop song out of one chord, after all, isn’t an easy thing to do. It’s a matter of seeing the bigger picture, of understanding how everything fits together and becomes complete, and in that sense, Dummy’s talent as arrangers is every bit as impressive as their songwriting. Of course, capturing the right vibe doesn’t hurt either.
Label: Trouble in Mind
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.