One might be better off not knowing the backstory to this album.
Yet pop-culture secrets aren’t well kept in 2011, so let’s get it out of the way: Only in Dreams is a record about death, much of it written while the lead singer’s mother was falling prey to terminal brain cancer. Now try and forget that.
While lead Dum Dum Girl Dee Dee (real name: Kristen Gundred) isn’t shy about the tragedy that inspired Only in Dreams, it would be unfair to forever brand this LP as one obsessed with sadness and mortality. For it’s first and foremost, a rock ‘n’ roll record, and one on which singer and band try to maintain a too-cool-to-cry toughness throughout. Additionally, the girl-group harmonies, morale-boosting hand-claps, and reverb-laced guitars—which hit the pavement running on album opener “Always Looking” as if they’re maxing out the odometer on a vintage Porsche 550—aren’t built for wallowing.
Even the album’s six-and-a-half-minute centerpiece of a ballad, “Coming Down,” traces a sudden moment of clarity. Should anyone attempt to stand in Dee Dee’s way, “you had better make it strong,” she sings. This is a long way removed from the demo-like feel of the act’s low-fi debut, last year’s “I Will Be,” as every echoing quiver of a guitar string is heard loud and pristine. As for Dee Dee, she’s calm as she scolds, and she’s stern when she seduces, like a film noir femme fatale as filtered via Chrissie Hynde.
The formula here is one that’s well-traversed, and it’s no coincidence that the band works closely with industry vet Richard Gottehrer, perhaps still known best for co-writing “My Boyfriend’s Back.” The Dum Dum Girls, however, do retro without it feeling worn. “Bedroom Eyes” conquers wistfulness with a steadily building momentum, peaking with a glistening, reach-for-the-stars bridge, while “Creep” is a kiss-off disguised as a dance party.
Still, the real pull is the emotional depth these largely three-minute songs reach with simplicity and directness. Take, for instance, “Caught in One,” a jangly number that does country by way of California garage rock. “This year’s been a drag,” Dee Dee sings, eventually revealing that she simply wanted to have fun. Even in the darkest of times, the Dum Dum Girls show how it can be done. —Todd Martens