Black Tambourine Complete Recordings
Dum Dum Girls I Will Be
Black Tambourine was a late 80s/early 90s indie-pop band with a comically small output and a formidably long shadow--a familiar enough story in a sub-genre so often drunk and swooning over what might have been rather than what actually went down. As an American response of sorts to unreasonably cool British label Creation and their noise-pop stars The Jesus and Mary Chain, Black Tambourine only recorded a handful of tracks and played a blip's worth of gigs before transmogrifying into a name forever dropped. Which is not to say that its members dropped out of relevance. Sweet, spacey singer Pam Berry hopped from hip footnote to hip footnote, singing in multiple bands and helping found the storied zine Chickfactor (it was like a blog you made with a Xerox machine). Guitarist Archie Moore hitched his wagon to the more ascendant star of his main band Velocity Girl, and rode it for a good, long while. Perhaps most pertinent to our current moment is multi-instrumentalist Mike Schulman, who has, for 20 years or so, been the main steward of Black Tambourine's label, Slumberland Records, resurgent now both in terms of personally signing bands like The Pains of Being Pure at Heart who are obvious successors to their initial sound, and for asserting a wider inspiration for the new bands and labels that have made fuzzy DIY pop blog-fodder for years now.
Dum Dum Girls have never released anything for Slumberland, though they'd hardly be out of place there. Instead, the home-recording work of L.A. gal Dee Dee (nee Kristen Gundred), has trickled out through likeminded labels, becoming the first act to bounce from local upstart Captured Tracks to a certified big-deal label like Sub Pop (mirroring Velocity Girl taking the same leap two decades ago). The resulting full-length, I Will Be, is a solid, fun bit of nostalgia, channeling 60s girl-pop through its messier 90s admirers in much sharper form than contemporaries like Crystal Stilts or The Vivian Girls can manage. It still doesn't surprise much, though. Single "Jail La La" fills a glaring hole in the garage rock canon with a thrashy, charming girl-in-prison rocker. Without a similarly novel narrative conceit many of these songs just blister by, almost too short and to the point to let themselves become interesting. Where her duets with Blank Dogs' Mike Sniper as The Mayfair Set simmer with humid, we-shouldn't-be-doing-this sexuality, the record's guy/girl ditty, "Blank Girl," seems almost patronizing. Brandon Welchez, from San Diego band Crocodiles (who sounds like a twerp), basically spends the song patting Dee Dee on the head, saying, "hey, a girl turned out cool, how adorable." It's easy to mishear his line "It's so nice to see you make it," as "It's so nice to see you naked," and since the whole thing ends up at creepy anyway, the latter might have been more refreshingly frank. The ballads fare much better, with slower, cleaner production unfortunately exposing the tinny fuzz of the peppy tracks as a handicap for a beautiful singing voice, rather than the usual D.I.Y. M.O—a disguise for a mediocre one. The closing Sonny and Cher cover, "Baby Don't Go," is undeniably pretty—swoon-worthy even—but again, sort of hollow. The small-town girl lyrics remain universal, but also kind of quaint and chaste. Would it kill Dee Dee to do more than transport the song to a basement aesthetic? Is a little subversion too much to ask?
In comparison to even a shining light of the current scene, Black Tambourine's music stands above. Complete Recordings, a victory-lap reissue of a 1999 compilation fleshed out with demos and reunited band recordings, is a revelation for the uninitiated; a thunderous, "Oh, duh!" for anyone whose been charmed by the band's many stylistic followers. While it's just as easy to dissect Black Tambourine's influences as it is to identify those who worship at their altar, the end results remain strange, alive, singular. Pam Berry, whose decent voice is enhanced, not diminished, by blown-out recording echo, draped twee melancholy over her band's surprisingly discordant music. There's a violence in the way the feedback bleeds just slightly past ear tolerance, a vibrancy in the way Berry's lingering notes rub up against rumbling, then snapping drum beats messier and more agitating than expected. To think, an indie-pop band where "dangerous" is a more apt adjective than "murky"! The singles, like the jealous girl's lament, "Throw Aggi Off the Bridge" (which easily laps Dum Dum Girls' own girl-girl angst track, "Lines Her Eyes") are predictably better than the odds and ends that fill the track list. It's all pretty intoxicating, still. Complete Recordings simulates a mysterious debut, a bit thin, maybe, but full of romance and potential. The tragedy of no follow-up, has been mitigated by dozens of groups trying to record it for them. If the result has been less interesting than Black Tambourine's original spark of promise, well, isn't that always the way?