In the press materials for Dum Dum Girls’ new album is a biography for the band that reads like a page torn from a diary. Written by Dee Dee Penny, the group’s singer and songwriter, the essay details just how raw and empowered she was while making “Too True.”
“Here it was spelled out for me: desire as muse; life as experiment; a miracle for every failure and vice versa. I put pen to paper and I wrote, and then I sang,” Dee Dee wrote. “I sang into my own private microphone, in my tiny bedroom studio, with no one save my make-believe co-conspirators to hear me, and no one to weight me with the looming pressure of inability. I was a woman possessed and my possession enabled me.”
That’s an eloquent and surprisingly candid admission from an artist who has thrived on the fringes of her craft. Dee Dee started Dum Dum Girls in 2008 as a solo project before it morphed into a four-piece rock band whose lineup has shifted since then.
DUM DUM GIRLS
“It’s always really hard for me to figure out how to handle that sort of thing,” Dee Dee says of that bio, speaking recently from the road after a string of shows at South by Southwest. (She brings Dum Dum Girls to Brighton Music Hall on Thursday.) “I had a few people write a few different versions, but it didn’t work out. I took it into my own hands, thinking it would be more of a prologue rather than a series of cheesy rock ’n’ roll adjectives.”
Steely and regal, often in all-black attire and with a no-nonsense air about them, Dum Dum Girls initially lurked in the shadows, tough and tender, splitting the difference between the Ramones and the Ronettes. As heard on the band’s earliest EPs and full-length debut, 2010’s “I Will Be,” Dee Dee kept her distance, her vocals barely poking through layers upon layers of reverb and guitar distortion.
That began to change on 2011’s “Only in Dreams,” which brightened the fidelity but also put Dee Dee — who’s known outside of indie rock as Kristin Welchez — front and center. She took that approach to even greater heights on “Too True,” the new album, which streamlines the fuzz and scuzz of early Dum Dum albums for a sparkling and clean production.
Its 10 tracks are lean and immaculate, poised pop songs meant to get stuck in your head with echoes of 1970s post-punk and ’80s new wave. “Are You Okay?” is especially evergreen, mastering the delicate balance between wounded and resilient with a wide-open melody that’s as dreamy as it is catchy.
“I had intended to give that song to Ronnie Spector,” Dee Dee says. “In writing it, I wasn’t as guarded maybe, because I didn’t anticipate doing it myself. Then later when I showed it to my producer, he was like, ‘You can’t give that one away.’ ”
That producer was Richard Gottehrer, who has been Dee Dee’s longtime collaborator, along with Sune Rose Wagner of the Raveonettes. Gottehrer is a legend in pop music in his roles as a producer who has worked with Blondie and the Go-Go’s, among others, and as a songwriter (he co-wrote “My Boyfriend’s Back,” a pillar of the ’60s girl-group sound). When Dee Dee signed to Sub Pop Records, someone at the label had the bright idea to ask Gottehrer to mix Dum Dum Girls’ debut.
Gottehrer remembers hearing Dee Dee’s promise right away. Well, barely.
“The voice was really engaging, but you couldn’t hear anything,” says Gottehrer, who also co-manages Dum Dum Girls. “So I said, ‘Look, I’ll do it. It’ll cost you X number of dollars, but I’ll tell you: I’m going to clear it up for you.’ I took what was really a primitive recording that Dee Dee did herself, but full of good songs and great attitude, and began mixing it.”
Gottehrer agrees that Dee Dee writes classic pop songs, many of which (“Bedroom Eyes,” “Coming Down,” “Evil Blooms”) sound like they easily would have been major hits in another era when pop music wasn’t so cut-and-dried as what we hear on Top 40 radio. But he also notes that Dee Dee isn’t exactly a formulaic artist.
“Dee Dee puts weird twists in her songs, which is great. That’s what makes her stand out from the crowd,” Gottehrer says. “Whether she sells hundreds of thousands of albums or less than that, she’s going to remain true to herself. Sooner or later she’s going to make that definitive piece of music and the rest of the world will catch up with it.”
Some skeptics have groused that the new album is too polished, too derivative of its source material. But Dee Dee has always been forthright about her influences and she’s paid homage with a number of cover songs over the years, from Sonny & Cher’s “Baby Don’t Go” to the Smiths’ “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.”
“I’m not in a genre of innovation. I think it’s silly for bands that are essentially continuing the rock ’n’ roll tradition to act like they’re unaffected by the multitude of bands that came before them,” she says. “I’d rather tell you specifically what I was obsessed with at the time I was making a record so that you don’t make it up. For me, it’s a conversation that happens whether or not I participate in it.”
It’s a tricky proposition when a musician who’s initially beloved for a lo-fi aesthetic finally decides to step into the light, to wipe away the aural cobwebs and be heard loud and clear. So often fans expect that artist to stay put. (Further reading: Best Coast circa 2012.)
For Dee Dee, though, she had never intended to be shrouded in mystique or, to borrow from the chorus of “Are You Okay?,” to be seen “through the lavender haze.” Her earliest work was primitive partly out of desire, but also because she didn’t know any better or have great equipment at her disposal.
“Honestly, when I started, it was the first time I was writing my own stuff and recording it, so there was a ton of user error on my part,” she says. “I recorded all of ‘I Will Be’ and the previous releases accidentally in the red. But as soon as I had access to an actual studio with [2011’s] ‘He Gets Me High,’ I quickly took advantage of that. That was always my goal: How do I do this for real? And better?”