In the closing moments of Too True, the spellbinding third record from Dum Dum Girls, frontwoman Dee Dee Penny (neé Kristin Gundred) sighs, “Trouble is my name — is it your name, too?” She needn’t have been so forward: From her earliest singles, the Los Angeles noisenik has proudly embraced danger, whether it was the clash and clatter of “Bhang Bhang (I’m a Burnout),” in which she reasoned “The kiss of death keeps us a mess,” or in the bass-booming sing-along “Jail La La,” where she snaps out of a blackout and finds herself in the big house for reasons unknown. Yet Penny flies this freak flag with a craftswoman’s care that sets her apart from other denizens of the dark: You don’t employ veteran producer Richard Gottehrer — an early studio cohort of Blondie and the Go-Gos and the co-writer of ’60s pop classics “My Boyfriend’s Back” and “I Want Candy” — if you want to stay in the garage.
Too True is Penny’s third album with Gottehrer, and it’s also the third significant refinement to her sound. Unlike 2011′s Only in Dreams, which dealt with the pain of her mother’s death with boldly extroverted music, Too True turns inward. It’s still full of pensive, guitar-driven pop, but it’s not as immediate as its predecessors, and its catchiest moments occur in ballads that shift Penny’s focus from a lamented “you” to a contemplative “I.” Behind its Jesus and Pretenders Chain exterior lies a subtle singer-songwriter joint.
The album begins not with an obvious single, but with a midway-through-the-album kind of cut, “Cult of Love,” which is rhythmically uptempo but emotionally downbeat. “Why be good? Be beautiful and sad/ It’s all you’ve ever had,” suggests the more memorable and propulsive “Evil Blooms.” “Rimbaud Eyes” condenses the French poet’s “The Drunken Boat” and sets it to a machine-steady ’80s goth-dance groove. Even better, “Are You Okay” drops the BPMs but maintains the MTV heyday vibe; had it been released during the reign of the Motels, Missing Persons, and Madonna’s first blossoming, it would’ve been a smash.
Having originated as a solo project, Dum Dum Girls reverts once again back to one: Too True is Penny’s vision alone, as shepherded by Gottehrer and co-producer Sune Rose Wagner of the Raveonettes, with whom she plays all the instruments. The results emphasize the singer’s haunted croon, her similarly confident melodies and gauzy, reverb-drenched melodrama. Nowhere is this shift from band effort to studio project more apparent than on the culminating cut, “Trouble Is My Name.” It’s got the drama of a Roy Orbison ballad, but transposed from a wounded tenor’s yelp to a vixen alto’s murmur. Penny laments her bad girl ways, but ultimately considers herself doomed beyond redemption — a femme fatale drifting in a sea of sonic noir.