Saturday, February 26, 2011

review- dum dum girls at the empty bottle- 2/24/11

(photo by dave knapik)

Life has a way of being just a touch ironic on its own sometimes. I got an email the day of the show from polyvinyl informing me that the download link for the new Vivian Girls release ‘Share the Joy’ was now active, so I downloaded it without much thought and Stefanie and I listened to it in the car on the way down to the Empty Bottle to see the elusive Dum Dum Girls (a band who circumstances have forced me to miss live twice now). It wasn’t until we were rounding a corner while looking for a parking space right outside the Empty Bottle- I suddenly felt self-conscious and turned the volume down at the sight of all of the hipster-types smoking outside. The specter of the onslaught of girl-group and reverb-drenched female bands looms kind of large over a band like Dum Dum Girls. There are times when the saturation is a bit much and I hadn’t given it much thought until that moment.

We arrived at about 10:30 or so, just in time to catch Brooklyn’s MINKS. I have to admit that I didn’t like them at all from the get-go. They mumbled and sleep-walked their way through their set exactly the way that one would expect a bunch of hipster cutouts from Brooklyn to at their first show in boring old Chicago. The skinny, female singer stood front and center not moving much playing a tambourine when she wasn’t singing along with the cataclysmically bored frontman who seems to think that ripping off ’17 seconds’-era Cure song structures and the Strokes with some of the mumbliest vocals I’ve ever heard is a stylistic choice. He even managed to sound snotty and bitchy when saying ‘thank you’ after every song. My favourite moment: someone in the crowd yelled, ‘Eat something!’ at the emaciated singer. The aforementioned frontman’s icy response- ‘We’re going to eat you if you’re not careful!’ Touché! The drummer even played that standard Laurence Tolhurst circa 1979 and 80 drumbeat during EVERY song. I’d say that MINKS’ set was pretty much the polar opposite of seeing Wild Nothing. They should probably have that skinny singer taking up the lion’s share of the vocals rather than standing front and center looking self-conscious and exposed- her singing at least didn’t sound bored and she had too nice of a voice for her to just stand there for the whole set looking like she didn't have enough to do.

The changeover between bands took an inordinate amount of time considering that MINKS had used all of Dum Dum Girls’ amps and drums. Somehow it still took over thirty minutes for the stage technician to get everything sounding just right. Even given all of that once they were up on stage and the house music was killed we watched the band awkwardly twiddle with amps and move things around for a good five minutes. This is often a bit of a pet-peeve of mine having played many shows myself as it just makes me wonder why anyone bothers with a tech of any kind at a place like the Empty Bottle? Every time I've been at a show where the band brings a tech this happens- the tech spends forever getting everything just right and then the band comes onstage and the guitars aren't loud enough or the vocal mic starts feeding back. Or it plays out like a ridiculous charade so that the crowd won't get pissed that they're being forced to wait an hour inbetween bands because the tech goes out every five minutes to tune the guitars. In this case once the music started all was forgiven as they did sound fantastic, although Dee Dee’s guitar was pretty much inaudible. When she was playing it by herself you could hear it kind of faintly while hearing the picking sound on the strings. Dee Dee’s singing was front and center and strong as were the harmonies traded off between all of the other players. I found it fascinating the way they had parsed out the harmonies amongst the bass player, lead guitarist and drummer and how they would very sparingly use three or four part harmonies. Those vocal harmonies are what carries those fantastic songs, which is what makes a quiet guitar a minor gripe. I also thought that Dee Dee was a great frontwoman- she was very enthusiastic and emphatic but not over-affected and her delivery was spot on.

The set started with their excellent cover of ‘Play With Fire’ by the Rolling Stones and was culled mostly from ‘I Will Be’ and they played at least three of the four tracks from ‘He Gets Me High’ (which I still haven’t gotten in the mail yet, but I’m definitely looking forward to hearing), all of which were excellent and showing some very promising musical evolution. It also sounds to me like the live band were more invested in the newer songs as their parts came alive on these songs in a way that they sometimes didn’t on those that were bringing Dee Dee’s solo 4-track recordings to life. The only pre-‘I Will Be’ song that they played was ‘Catholicked,’ which was kind of a shame as I would’ve liked to have heard a few more songs from that era. They also played what they said was a brand new song that they had just learned that morning which came off beautifully.

They played for almost an hour and did one encore, which was their interesting take on ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’ by the Smiths. All in all the set was very solid and they didn’t go overboard with the theatrics, which I often find annoying. When you have great songs and you're presenting them in a heartfelt, enthusiastic way theatrics become more of a distraction than an enhancement. I’d call it a symptom of having come of music listening age during a time when bands didn’t feel the need to bother with much in the way of stage theatrics. Matching outfits and guitars is an aesthetic I can get behind, though.

A lot of outside influences were working their magic to distract us from the music while we were there- it was a sold-out crowd and, as often happens, Stefanie operated as a magnet for drunk, annoying people- we were all the way in the back and a group of people much younger than us decided that they had to dance around bumping into us all night all the while posing in contrived tableaux with hamm’s cans in their hands frozen in mid-drink for facebook-bound photos. One of them has Stefanie’s middle finger in it as they bumped into her three times and ignored her ‘Do you mind?’ after this aforementioned third time. One of them did eventually apologize. A friend of mine and I were talking about how she prefers going to metal shows because people know how to behave themselves and not be obnoxious, whereas with indie shows these days you get a lot of this kind of behavior- I suppose that people think that being there means you need to take picture after picture of you with your drunk friends texting and tweeting the entire night away hopelessly oblivious to those around you. There’s a little music going on, too, folks. I suppose I was due for an experience like this as the other two recent shows I’ve been to have been refreshingly free of this kind of stuff (and they were both indie shows).

Also the Dum Dum Girls will have to bear, yet again, the unfortunate position of being compared to the Vivian Girls as Stefanie and I couldn’t help but do so as we were listening to the rest of the 'Share the Joy' on the way home. The two are comparable, but ultimately going about their respective musical aesthetic in very different ways- the Vivian Girls are very infused a no-bullshit punk approach- you can hear them struggling with guitar parts, hitting the occasional bum note and a good deal of shamelessly out-of-key singing but the fact remains that they are playing these brilliantly written and heartfelt songs that are a fantastic cocktail of punk, girl-groups and the occasional Jesus and Mary Chain feedbacky-scuzzfest. Dum Dum Girls are a sleeker affair with their matching black skirts and tights, guitars and disciplined harmonies. A lot of what they suffer from live is the fact that they are a band that came into existence to bring one person’s recordings to life whereas the Vivian Girls have always existed as a band. Here’s hoping that Dum Dum Girls continue to evolve as a band rather than just as a group of hired hands to bring solo recordings to life onstage.

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