Jonah Bromwich bleached his hair black to write this review.
That’s a trying time for any group, especially for one led by a volatile personality like Kristin Gundred, a.k.a Dee Dee Penny. If you paid close attention to the Girls’ last album, the heavily underrated Only In Dreams, you could hear the strain that the frontwoman was under, suffering from the death of her mother and the harrowing distance of her husband, Brandon Welchez, of The Crocodiles, who was on tour when the album was written.
This was a woman who was encountering longing, loss and death, and was somehow able to transfigure those experiences into beautiful, orthodox pop songs. The personification of her mother’s illness on the song “Caught in One,” is an extraordinary piece of songwriting, amplified by the fact that the most telling lines are placed within a sculptured verse which gives way to a catchy girl-group chorus. That’s the way that the Dum Dum Girls do things: no wasted space, emotion fitting smoothly into the rigid structure of pop music. Verse, [feelings], chorus.
End of Daze finds the Dum Dums expressing more pain. The lyrics are as simple as on Only in Dreams (two songs here are leftovers from those sessions), universalisms occasionally whittled down to a telling point. There’s a precision at work that keeps Dee Dee and Co. separated from the “lazy/crazy” territory of Bethany Consentino. And the Girls have a knack for picking songs that share similar lyrical territory. Here’s a selection from their cover of Strawberry Switchblade’s “Trees and Flowers,” for example:
“For I hate the trees/ And I hate the flowers/ And I hate the buildings/And the way they tower over me/Can’t you see/I get so frightened/No one else seems frightened/Only me”
There are two important tricks above that keep these lines from being generic and silly. The first is the switch between rural and urban imagery — it’s not that the narrator hates nature, it’s that she hates everywhere you might want to place her. Those three lines tell you that you’re not dealing with a petulant child throwing a tantrum. You’re dealing with someone truly unhappy. The second trick is the explanation of the unhappiness—the fright induced by everything. In the city, it’s the way the buildings loom. There’s probably an equally simple and profound explanation for her loathing of the trees and flowers. Unhappiness is a lens.
Gundred knows how to write songs straight through it and knows how to sing the hell out of those songs if they’ve already been written. She shows that even on the most upbeat track on the album, the catchy “I’ve Got Nothing.”
If you abandoned the group (with Douglas Martin) once they cleaned up their sound and broadened the scope of their songwriting, this is a song that’s going to bother you, just because the melody would be so perfect with a little more dust on top. But for those of us who aren’t choosy about the altitude of our fidelity, it’s good as is. Bass heavy, with soaring guitar on the chorus, a straightfaced Dee Dee sings, “I’ve got nothing left to say from this day on.”
But I don’t think that’s true. Dazes and seasons end, and the last song, “A Season in Hell,” seems like an omen of something brighter in the Girls’ future. (Which, of course, is the narrative they’re selling—I’m very susceptible to this sort of manipulation.) Static riffs propel a meditation on both shadow and the light that can follow: “A confession’s not a cure, there’s always darkness to endure, on the path to be redeemed,” the song goes, before concluding, not with assurance but with a question. “Doesn’t the dawn look divine?” Dee Dee asks.
It’s a note of optimism, if not one of blatant self-regard. And that kind of humility, coupled with hopefulness is attractive. Regardless of her emotional state, she’s determined and able to do great work.