The buzzy, big-name albums from 2009 were artsy and ambitious. Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, and Grizzly Bear would dominate year-end lists, but at the same time those albums were blowing up, a strain of music was taking hold that engaged with a completely opposite aesthetic: not giving a shit, or at least pretending not to give a shit. The summer of chillwave, which emphasized low fidelity and a laidback mood, fed into the rise of the slacker.
Dum Dum Girls were at the forefront of that movement. The mastermind behind the project was the California-based musician Kristin Gundred, though at the time she went by the name Dee Dee. She was part of the era of artists that were defined by what we didn’t know about them. An early Pitchfork review of “Catholicked” speculated that she was a Los Angeles librarian; even a year after her debut album, interviewers were still asking about her enigmatic rise. Gundred would become less opaque as Dum Dum Girls became more of a full band, but she undoubtedly benefitted from that atmosphere of mystery, that question of who is this girl and why are these songs so good?
Her earliest recordings were messy, energetic scrawls. She started, as so many did in those days, by recording at home and uploading her songs to MySpace. She quickly caught the attention of labels. HoZac Records would put out a 7″; Captured Tracks’ first-ever catalog release was her 2009 EP; and the indie major Sub Pop swooped in and signed the band and released their debut full-length, I Will Be, 10 years ago today.
I Will Be was a precursor to the summer of 2010’s big trend: sunny harmonies and fuzzy distortion, the period when Best Coast and Wavves were blasting out of everyone’s iPod earbuds. Gundred’s burnout garage-rock was influenced by ’60s girl-groups like the Ronettes and the Shangri-Las, and she idolized Patti Smith and the Ramones. Her band name is a gender-flipped Iggy Pop reference. She came up with it while looking at a stack of records in which the Vaselines’ Dum-Dum was on top.
When it came time to record her debut album, Gundred didn’t change what was already working. She still recorded it at home, though a number of other musicians popped in to contribute guitar lines, including Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner on “Yours Alone.” Sub Pop sent her songs off to the storied producer Richard Gottehrer, who co-wrote the chart-topper “My Boyfriend’s Back” and produced landmark albums by the Go-Gos and Blondie. (Gottehrer would have a hand in all the Dum Dum Girls releases to follow.) He cleaned the songs up and helped to perfect the alchemy that you hear on I Will Be, which straddles an indelibly fine line between muddy and precise.
By the time I Will Be came out, Gundred had established a full band to play with her live, whose members included Vivian Girls and Crystal Stilts drummer Frankie Rose. Their first shows took place in the fall of 2009, and even though they don’t perform on the album, the confidence they brought to the stage translated to the record. It’s more assured than any of Dum Dum Girls’ early demos, utilizing the lo-fi distortion as another instrument rather than a limitation of necessity. The blown-out sound feels like more of a conscious choice, a way to bottle these songs in an echo chamber that reflected the isolation they were written in.
“The whole first record was really just how I spent my free time,” Gundred reflected in a 2011 interview. “Stoned and drinking coffee in my house, spending three hours on a song. I had no friends, nothing to do.” I Will Be sounds restless — these songs ricochet off the walls, they feel like being stuck in a room and trying to claw your way out. On the project’s MySpace page, Gundred described her songs as “blissed out buzzsaw.” There is a comforting abrasiveness to her music. Anchored by a tinny drum machines, the songs on I Will Be are little marvels of interlocking rhythms. Gundred knows how to write a pop hook, and these songs are bursting with little melodies and ear-worms, drowned in reverb and noise. None of them, save for the album closing Sonny Bono cover, clock in over three minutes. They’re all perfectly compact.
Gundred’s voice inhales before every line and deflates like a big balloon, each harmony coalescing around a great whoosh of air. She’s often unintelligible — sometimes willfully so, like on the German language “Oh Mein M” — but the imagery she does conjure up is visceral. “Jail La La,” the remnant of a scrapped concept album based around the Italian prison film 99 Women, chimes with disorientation. “Oh god, how did I get here? I do not know/ I just woke up at this strange show,” she sings in its scene-setting first verse. “This woman’s clearly out of her mind/ She’s covered in shit and high as a kite.” The carceral state of the narrator sounds like anyone trapped in their suburban hometown. “Someone tell my baby,” she pleads. “Or else he won’t know I need saving.”
A lot of the songs on I Will Be are love songs, but all of Gundred’s love songs are precarious, always one step away from taking a turn for the worse. “It only takes one night,” she imagines it all falling apart on the opening track. “Still savor each day you’re mine,” goes the romantic “Rest Of Our Lives,” leaving the anticipated end unspoken. “Lines Her Eyes” and “Everybody’s Out” are jittery and anxious and jealous. “Everybody’s out to get my baby,” she sings on the latter, around each corner a new threat to her stability. On “Lines Her Eyes,” she is frenzied and paranoid, seeing her doppelgänger staring back at her in the mirror: “My enemy wears her hair just like me, lines her eyes just like me/ Happens to follow me all the time/ I didn’t recognize her/ Then I realized…” There’s a dark irony at the heart of the songs on I Will Be, a nightmarish fever that offsets the breezy harmonies. “I will be your girl/ You can have my world,” she insists on the title track, more a desperate ploy than a statement of confidence.
Not every album from this era holds up as well as I Will Be, but revisiting these songs makes it clear that Dum Dum Girls were up to something special. The project would eventually expand over the years, incorporating a full band and taking them into cleaner-sounding territory. But there’s a lightning-in-a-bottle quality about I Will Be that still feels alluring, that makes it worth holding up as an exemplar from this era of music. Gundred was never as much of a slacker as she presented herself to be — these songs are fastidiously constructed, sturdy as hell, and surprisingly enduring.