Dum Dum Girls

Covered: “September Gurls”

Covered is a feature where we examine the merits of various cover songs, debating whether or not they capture the spirit and intent of the original, if the cover adds anything new, and whether or not it perhaps surpasses the original. If we fail on those counts, at the very least we may expose you to different versions of great songs you hadn’t heard before.

As the calendar switched to September today, the first song that popped into my head was Big Star’s classic “September Gurls” (sorry Earth, Wind & Fire–you will get your moment to shine on the 21st).  Though I never figured out the meaning behind the distinction between December Boys and September “Gurls”, I would argue that Alex Chilton’s bittersweet romantic ode to a lost love is close to being a perfect pop song.  Not only is the song filled with memorable melodies, including the immortal hook of “December Boys got it bad”, but it also features those sweet, chiming guitars that helped influence a generation of musicians into creating what would become known as “jangle pop”.  However, as is the case on the rest of Radio City, the secret weapon is the booming drums of Jody Stephens, who provides both a powerful foundation as well as brilliant and precise fills.
It is no surprise then that over the years since its first release that “September Gurls” has inspired numerous cover versions from a diverse group of artists.  Its straightforward chord progression and simple rhythm make it an easy addition to a band’s setlist, and the relatable subject matter and unforgettable melody makes it a natural crowd-pleaser.  Most versions tend to be faithful to the original, like this beautiful acoustic performance from Brendan Benson, but there are moments and opportunities that allow for an artist to add a personal touch or two.  For instance, though The Bangles’ cover adheres closely to Big Star’s version, the fact that the song is sung from a woman’s point of view changes the narrative dynamic of the lyrics, and the generally slick production tips off what decade their version was performed.  The Dum Dum Girls provide another example, as their straightforward take nevertheless manages through a few slight modifications to bear the imprint of the group’s trademark sound, namely the heavy use of reverb and a switch to a classic garage rock drumbeat.

The version that sticks out the most in my mind, however, is the ragged version that The Replacements would bust out from time to time at their shows.  The wear and tear in Paul Westerberg’s voice is perfect for the longing that shines through the lyrics, and there is a certain restrained ferocity in the band’s attack that enhances the emotional pain inherent in the song.  Structurally, the band does not do much to alter the song, with any changes being purely incidental.  Instead, what sticks in my mind is the vitality of the performance itself, and how it is a perfect example of the ability of The Replacements to be the best bar band in the planet on any day of the week.  It seems impossible to top the original, but at least The ‘Mats show the way to make a memorable version of a new standard.

Review: Dum Dum Girls – Too True

I first came across the Dum Dum Girls early last year, a few months after the release of their EP End of Daze.  I quickly was hooked on their hazy take on 60’s-era garage-pop and worked my way backwards through their catalog.  I enjoyed their bubblegum melodies and big hooks, and as a result, Only in Dreams had an extended residency in my car for a couple of months.  While it’s easy to pinpoint the limits to their style (simplistic drumbeats, 3-4 basic chords, etc.), it worked in small doses, and it didn’t hurt that the lyrics were alternately clever and heart-felt.  With songs as great as “Bedroom Eyes”, there’s no reason to spend much time nit-picking these slight concerns.

With their new album, the Dum Dum Girls decided it was time for a stylistic shift, ditching the 60’s as their prime influence and switching to a more 80’s-inspired sound.  From the outset, one hears the addition of synths and the use of heavily reverbed drums that give off that heavily-processed 80’s pop style.  The synths don’t dominate the sound, as might be expected, but are kept more in the background; guitars are still a dominant presence, either through slick lead lines or through arpeggiated strums that cut through the mix.

There is a question of what inspired this new direction–did Dee Dee spend a few late nights watching her Drive Blu-Ray?  Or was it simply a recognition of the limits of her previous style?  Last year I saw a couple of openers at different shows that either were influenced by the Dum Dum Girls directly, or they had found the original influences and decided that it was a viable option.  So it makes sense from both an artistic and commercial perspective to begin broadening horizons.

In the end, I’m not sure it entirely works.  There are some great moments on the album, but too often the staged artificiality of the music acts as a drawback, and cuts against taking any of the lyrics seriously.  However, there is something to be said to being able to craft a seemingly effortless pop song, which I think the Dum Dum Girls accomplished with “Are You Okay?”  Here, the light airy music with the sugary melody provide an effective dichotomy with the pleading lyrics.  This is the moment when you could say the new direction pays off.