Dum Dum Girls, despite their ties to lo-fi, have never been a band to sit still or settle down in the basement. After cleaning up their debut EP’s hazy sound a touch on the still murky, mostly home-recorded I Will Be, the band made singer Dee Dee’s voice shine on their latest EP, this year’s He Gets Me High. Now, Only in Dreams is the full realization of this move towards clarity. It’s a big, focused, shimmering sound of a record. The guitars still echo and blur at the edges, but with subtle effects and not tape-hiss fuzz. The drums here are bright and driving, not the lean brittle pulse that came out on I Will Be. And Dee Dee’s voice has risen fully above the fray, and her voice is both plainly beautiful and heartbreakingly confessional.
It’s that last part, the bittersweet honesty of the record, that truly sells this sharp new sound. The surf rock riffage of “Always Looking” or the dreamy rundowns of “Bedroom Eyes” or the moody overcast vibe of “Caught in One” would all still be solid, but if Dee Dee weren’t up front belting it out they’d feel less distinct, less personal. The risk they take in stepping out of the mid-fi gauze is exposing themselves in the harsh light of production. It’s easy to hide behind the nostalgic feel of low fidelity, but when you shine things up the emotion and energy still need to show through. More importantly, you need to sound unique, like you’re building on the traditions of pop groups and lean rock bands and not just taking their sound as your own.
But Dum Dum Girls have always been too good to stay small, to keep hissing away on home recordings. Only in Dreams is lush and wide open, but rarely relaxed. In fact, there’s little or no comfort in the seeming ease of the album’s title. Instead, the bed is an image of discomfort here, of alienation and heartbreak and illness. “Bedroom Eyes” isn’t about a come-hither stare, it’s about the insomnia that follows the leaving of a lover. Empty beds serve as painful reminders here. Ex-lovers turn up in other people’s beds instead of your own.
Outside of these lovelorn tunes, there’s the more painful loss on “Hold Your Hand” where Dee Dee addresses the passing of her mother. “Oh it’s a game: How tight can you shut your eyes? Can you shut out the light?” She wonders. “Death is so bright.” That retreat into herself, looking for sleep or dreams or both (and finding neither) proves a touching close to an album that deals with love in so many permutations. The loss of a fresh love, the strain of marriage, and the great loss of family. That hard-to-find solace floats all around these songs, framing them with real-life emotion and consequence.
So in many ways this feels like a more complicated shadow cast after the brief burst of sound on He Gets Me High. In fact, “Coming Down” feels like a direct response to that EP. It’s six-plus minute running time is a new thing for the band, and a huge, squalling success. “I think I’m coming down,” she keeps repeating, but it isn’t until the towering bridge — with guitars grinding out into space and drums crashing — when she sings “Here I go!” that the song hits its peak. The song speaks to the breadth the Dum Dum Girls’ sound has. This isn’t just for two-minute bursts, Dee Dee and company can stretch out and play, and they do on Only in Dreams, smoldering through all these heartbroken gems.
There’s still plenty of full-on fire here — “Just a Creep” is a brilliant kiss-off tune early on — but mostly Dum Dum Girls succeed here in laying it all on the table. They tackle heavy emotions with subtlety and grace, and make their sound shine without buffing it to a blinding sheen. The band may occasionally slip into comfortable ground — “Wasted Away” or “Heartbeat” are solid, but feel like the kind of straight pop nostalgia they leave behind on better songs — but for the most part Only in Dreams is a sound that is firmly theirs. On I Will Be, it was all about the future. From the title to the sepia-tones teenage memories, the record was all about what they would become. But on Only in Dreams, it’s all about what they are: an honest and fiery rock band who are quickly separating themselves from their peers.