Classic Music Review: Dressy Bessy (album)

I first heard about Dressy Bessy a few years ago via a comment on one of the indie rock reviews I used to do early in this blog’s history.

When I googled “Dressy Bessy,” the first thing that came up was a Playskool doll, something like a Raggedy Ann without the freckles. I thought someone had played a joke on me, and not a very nice one. I fucking hate dolls. I never played with one when I was a kid because a.) I have no maternal instincts whatsoever and b.) I couldn’t get my little head around the concept of doll-worship. I had friends who played with Barbie dolls, and I watched in utter astonishment as they projected their grown-up identities onto those lifeless frames, wishing that someday they would be as plastically gorgeous and stacked as Barbie and earn a lifeless loser like Ken as their reward. I also remember that they thought that I was the weird one for not playing with dolls, and I became something of an outcast, scratched off many a birthday party invitation list.

I was cool with that. I’ve always imagined hell to be a non-stop kid’s birthday party.

I was about to browse to my next destination on the web when I spotted a link to Dressy Bessy (band) down near the bottom of the page. I clicked on the link, learned that they hailed from Colorado, had been around a while, and were quite active during the pre-blog period of my life when I spent most of my time fucking. The comment had directed me to their eponymous album and to two songs in particular : “The Things That You Say That You Do” and “This May Hurt (A Little).” I headed over to iTunes, sampled those two tracks and immediately bought the entire album. Eventually, I wound up buying every Dressy Bessy record known to humankind.

I’ve never reviewed any of their stuff because Dressy Bessy and I have had a hard time getting in sync. During the period when I was focused on new releases by great indies like The Dahlmans, The Connection, Kurt Baker, Mind Spiders, Rah-Rah, Sugar Stems and Anik Jean, their recording career went dark. After I switched to classic-reviews-only, they released their latest album, Kingsized. It took my little blonde brain a while to realize that their early stuff qualified as “classic” status but when it finally clicked, I was as happy as a kitten under a leaky cow! Dressy Bessy is an under-appreciated American treasure, a keeper of the flame, a band that has consistently produced singable, danceable rock ‘n’ roll for almost twenty years.

While some trace the downfall of the U. S. A. to things like Vietnam, Watergate, wacko Christian fundamentalists, the post 9/11 paranoia, Fox News or the NRA, I view those more as symptoms rather than problems. America started going down the toilet when the disgustingly violent sport of football replaced the more thoughtful and timeless sport of baseball as the national pastime, and hit the accelerator on its way straight to hell when Americans abandoned rock ‘n’ roll as the dominant form of popular music.

When you stop thinking, you get stupid, and America has certainly become a place that celebrates stupidity. But when you stop rocking, you stop nourishing the spirit of freedom and rebellion that had always formed the American lifeblood and sparked the quest for anti-conformist originality. Freedom in America is now equated with military power, and there is nothing that says America is finished as a country quite as poignantly as tuning into a baseball game to see the players wrapped in camouflage uniforms. If America had remained true to its spirit, the rebels who brought us rock ‘n’ roll, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement and all the delightful variants of the sexual revolution would be celebrated as heroes to this day. Instead, America automatically crowns any stiff who enlists in the armed forces with hero status (and does close to nothing when those heroes return to the homeland, broken by the trauma of man’s inhumanity to man).

Dressy Bessy represents the positive manifestation of the American spirit, but I’m a Dressy Bessy fan for many reasons that have nothing to do with the country’s ethos. First, I’ve noticed that Tammy Ealom, lead singer and songwriter, is a woman with a low tolerance for stupidity. I like that. I also like her understated, slightly rough voice, similar to the style Kim Deal brings to her work with The Breeders and a welcome break from the drama queen style of American singers who spend too much time watching American Idol while dreaming of their shot at a Super Bowl national anthem gig. She writes about everyday female experience, bringing the discussion down from the lofty abstractions of feminist theory to the human level, where we can find understanding. The band (the lineup has changed over the years) is always solid, supportive and subtly energetic, doing just enough to keep the listener engaged without crossing the line into histrionics. In other words, they kick ass without making a big deal out of it or drawing attention to their virtuosity. And I admire the hell out of Dressy Bessy for sticking with it for so long, despite the indifference of the dickheads at the major record companies who have decided that the combination of stupid and flashy is a winning formula in the battle for the decaying ears of the American consumer.

Dressy Bessy was their third album, and represented something of a stylistic shift. Their first two albums, Pink Hearts Yellow Moons and Sound Go-Round fell somewhere between 60’s pop and garage, full of melodic, catchy little numbers without a lot of production hoo-hah. Dressy Bessy affirmed the commitment to melody while amping up the power. The result is one of the most thoroughly enjoyable rock ‘n’ roll records in my collection, one I reach for when I want something that I can sing along to while shaking my ass and tapping my feet in paroxysms of delight. While they have expanded their sonic palette over the years and added more variation to the mix, Dressy Bessy remains at heart a solid, no-nonsense, melodic rock band. Tammy Ealom, lead singer and songwriter, has a gift for coming up with songs that stick in your head for days, weeks, even months. And even though the songs are already playing in your head, you’ll get the overwhelming urge to play them again and again, intensifying the addiction.

I’m cool with that, too. I love my addictions.

“Just One More” sends the festivities off to a roaring start with a high-speed strum on one channel, then BOOM! Bass, drums and second guitar fill the soundscape with the spirited bass pattern driving things forward at a healthy pace. In a few seconds we hear Tammy’s solid but reserved vocal, and the contrast between her restraint and the sound of a band on fire is curiously alluring. The lyrics use the metaphor of the question wall to measure progress in a relationship very much in the formative stage, where each person spends a whole lot of time trying to figure out the other:

My dear, I’ve painted a picture
I’ve painted a picture for the question wall
I’ll hang it up with the rest soon
Right up with the next few that come along
One more, there’s room for just one more
Once more make room for just one more

Eventually, Tammy figures out things will work out if she just stops fucking worrying about it:

If these walls, they could tell
They’d say, “What’s the fuss? Well, you worry too much.”
From what I, what I can tell
There’s enough space up there
Though in time it’ll disappear, I’ll enjoy being here

“Just Once More” is a fabulous opener, a melodic rocker that never stops to take a breath.

“The Things That You Say That You Do” is an amazing piece of work that demonstrates there are still plenty of musical possibilities in a simple three-chord pattern. What makes the song so engaging are the subtle rhythmic variations in verse, bridge and chorus—while the drums maintain a commitment to the backbeat, the guitars shift their emphasis, accentuating different beats in the verses and shifting to slightly syncopated riffs in the bridge. The variation in verse and bridge make for a marvelous build to the all-out bash in the chorus . . . a musical pattern of titillation leading to an aural orgasm. And the pattern is so goddamned effective that the subsequent repetition of the pattern is more than welcome, as is a later passage that dispenses with the verse entirely and cuts straight to the syncopated bridge. Nothing fancy from a technical perspective, but absolutely killer when combined with the incredibly singable melody and touches of spot harmony. The lyrical story seems to deal with partner elusiveness, obliviousness or both; in response to the fear motivating the partner’s reluctance to engage, Tammy responds with patient nurturing, almost as if she’s dealing with a child who has seen the bogeyman or the scary clowns under the bed:

You were right
They’re all gone
Like the things that you say that you do

Run darling, run, I’ll save you
Run from this now ’cause you want to
Run darling, run, let’s say you’ve
Run from this now ’cause you got to

Nice that she gives the partner a face-saving out. That’s class.

The eminently singable “Baby Six String” comes next, and I can verify its singability because I sang it for the Irish half of the family at one of our last holiday get-togethers before we abandoned the USA. The reason I chose “Baby Six String” is its call-and-response chorus that even the alcohol-plastered can handle—“Sing it high/Hoorah, hoorah/Sing a little higher/Hoorah, hoorah.” Of course, the inebriated males had to pull a “Wild Rover” act and throw in a few too-rah-loos and various phrases of questionable Gaelic origin, but the whole thing worked and everyone wanted to do an encore after passing around the bottle of Bushmill’s. I also love this song because it’s the girl who wants to be the guitar hero to raise her cool factor instead of the male aficionado of the Guitar Hero video game series.

While “Baby Six String” is a mellow, pleasant rocker, “This May Hurt (A Little)” kicks serious ass, both musically and lyrically. The opening guitar duet (I assume it’s John Hill and Tammy) definitely gets your attention with strong supporting punctuation from Darren Albert on drums and Rob Greene on bass. The band’s just warming up when Tammy enters using a semi-narrative vocal style to give you the backstory about a teenage pal—the girl with whom she shared all the things women share with each other when all that noisy male energy is out of the room:

Josy was a near dear friend of mine
She lived around the corner, across the street and through the parking lot.
We’d sit and take a sip once in a while.
With nowhere much to walk in town we’d often sit and talk about her life.

Josy was a near dear friend of mine
Cross-legged in the kitchen then we’d giggle, cry and rub our eyes
Seemed obvious to us, the two who’d shine
With nothing pledged between us then we’ve carried on and gone about our lives.

Here Tammy leaps an octave for the chorus—“This may hurt a little”—repeated three times. The rise is supported by the appearance of crash cymbals and the band amping it up, reflecting a sense of pent-up emotion ready to burst. “With nothing pledged between us” is the line that draws my attention, because there are certain confidences and understandings that are just fucking sacrosanct, that don’t require a written agreement and anyone with a moral compass should fucking know that.

As you may have discerned from that outburst, dishonesty is a hot button for me. I’ve never been able to decide if it’s nature or nurture, but for a woman to betray another woman’s confidence feels worse to me than a man doing the same thing. I think women are conditioned to expect men to be unreliable, but we expect our close female friends to be as solid as Gibraltar. It’s horseshit, of course, since women are human beings with all the capabilities of deceit and deception characteristic of Homo sapiens. Female bonding may also reflect the shared experienced of any oppressed group whose members learn to rely on each other since the oppressors sure as shit aren’t going to help us out.

In this case, yep, Josy turns out to be a shit (“The bits of revelation I’ve compiled/She’s broken all the secrets we’d made up and packaged neatly in our minds”). After another rendition of the chorus, the band brings it down several decibels to give Tammy center stage to voice not only her sense of betrayal but the sheer outrage that her friend is both insensitive and falling back on playing the victim to relieve herself of responsibility:

I don’t miss much of Josie
Much of the time
Though I know she’s feeling helpless most of the time
These days she may wonder what I’d done
I don’t miss much of Josie or what she’s become

And WHAM! back to the main riff and chorus. You get the feeling that it hurts more than a little, but at least Tammy got it off her chest.

“Georgie Blue” features a memorable riff, a power-filled arrangement and a nice, deep bottom. The lyrics seem to deal the sexual-romantic dynamic between musician and listener, a relationship built more on stolen glances heightened by active imaginations than anything solid; the lines, “Georgie, I resign/Before your foolish eyes have dropped mine” indicate that Tammy has wisely decided to move on. It’s followed by the comforting sound of amp buzz that marks the intro to “Girl, You Shout,” a solid rocker integrating stop time intervals with all-out bash, all held together by the naturally flowing melody. The lyrics are a different take on woman-to-woman kinship with Tammy clearly in the role of older-and-wiser helping a neophyte navigate the shoals of freedom from the parental nest. Tammy’s vocal is a fascinating combination of detachment and sweetness, once again heightened by her relative restraint in the context of rock power.

One of my favorite songs on Dressy Bessy features a bit more chord variation, a strong melody, subtle harmonies and a counterpoint bass part from Rob Greene that would have made the peak version of Paul McCartney proud. “Hey May” recalls the best melodic rock from the mid-60’s, a perfectly lovely composition that tugs at heart and soul. We’re not really sure what May’s issue is beyond a stubborn pessimism guiding her attempt to find some kind of identity in a world where there is so much pressure to pick an identity off the shelf—but her story makes you want to reach out to her and help, all the while knowing that you’re not going to make much progress unless she’s willing to help herself:

Hey, May, we’ve found your things out near the alley
In a small brown bag marked “need me, have me”
What are you gonna do when the world turns in on you?
Hey, check it out, think of me once in a while

Did it make you happy?
Did it come in handy?
“But of course,” she’d say
“It’s gonna hurt me more this way”

Like “Hey May,” “New Song (from me to you)” is a mid-tempo melodic piece featuring some tricky drum work, gorgeous complementary guitar and strong, bouncy bass. It’s followed by “Better Luck,” a burst-out-of-the-gate bash about the silly belief that relationships can be saved or blown by something as trivial as lip shine, a first-world anxiety that dates back to T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock. Combined with the other songs on Dressy Bessy concerning female identify in a male-dominated universe, “Better Luck” confirms that one of Tammy Ealom’s main themes has to do with the stupid shit women believe they have to do to earn cred in our society and how utterly pointless an effort it is to maintain the façade. Women have to “rediscover the sturdy ground,” urges Tammy in “Girl, You Shout.” Find the inner compass and stop fucking worrying about what other people think.

We head off to the local bar for “Blink Twice,” another incredibly catchy tune about the mating ritual, soaked in whiskey. Though the song hints at two-way interaction, it’s really an internal dialogue depicting the things that go on inside a woman’s head as she sizes up levels of interest—his and hers. In the process, the woman engages in a classically female assessment of her own desirability on brains-beauty scale, reinforcing the self-consciousness that pervades the interaction:

Witty, witty, you’re awful pretty
Bet he doesn’t stick around

In the end, she’s really not interested and views the whole experience as a means of “counting out the hours.” Still, the scientifically-proven superiority of the female in the area of emotional intelligence gets in the way and leaves her in limbo, worried about hurting his feelings:

So should I blink twice before I’ve ruined his night?
Or should I just play nice and tell him it’s all right?

Advice to women: emotional intelligence has an on-off switch and you can turn it off anytime you want an obvious loser to leave you the fuck alone.

Dressy Bessy closes with a spirited little number called “Tidy,” where the combination of a bouncy beat and the addition of female harmony gives the song a Go-Go’s feel. The song is structured in two distinct parts, with the bouncier verses giving way to a more driving beat in the bridge. It’s a nice closer to a wonderfully energizing rock ‘n’ roll gem.

In the fourteen years since this album’s release, Dressy Bessy has expanded their sonic palette and added more structural and chordal variation to their songs. None of the following three studio albums that follow sound like Dressy Bessy, though all maintain an absolute commitment to melodic rock ‘n’ roll. In those three albums (Electrified, Holler and Stomp and Kingsized), you’ll hear Tammy Ealom continuing her growth as a songwriter, exploring new and exciting possibilities within the broad boundaries of rock ‘n’ roll.

And in all those years and through all the struggles inherent in independent status, Dressy Bessy has never forgotten that great rock ‘n’ roll is the ultimate tonic for whatever ails you.

Now, get your asses out of your chair, go buy Dressy Bessy records and rock Trump out of the White House!

One response

  1. Fun stuff! I did a college radio show from 1999-2001, and I enjoyed playing “Lookaround” from the first album. I also liked the California EP. When I did another show from 2013-2015, I dug into this self-titled album (via youtube) and played “The Things That You Say That You Do” and “Baby Six-String.” Now you’ve got me thinking that I need to buy this album, or maybe one of the other ones. I hadn’t listened closely to the lyrics, but I’m not surprised to learn that they are really good.

    The band’s name always makes me smile. My little sister had the Dressy Bessy doll, as well as its male companion, Dapper Dan.

    Like

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