Dummy: Mandatory Enjoyment
The Los Angeles band nods to various corners of psychedelic music while transcending its influences on this blissful and spacious debut album.
Dummy has all the makings of a modern cult band. Formed in late 2018, the Los Angeles group have evolved noticeably in a short span of time, leaving behind the shivering avant-folk of their first EP and lo-fi video game music of EP2, recorded on an iPhone. Their debut full-length, Mandatory Enjoyment, is just as voracious, merging the band’s key influences from 1990s noise-pop and early electronic psychedelia with ambient interludes that add welcome dynamics between bursts of frenzied instrumentation. You could call it “record collection rock,” but it’s also one of this year’s most consistent debuts.
Emma Maatman’s droning organ is a hallmark of Dummy’s music, filtering through almost every song on Mandatory Enjoyment. When combined with her sundazed, deadpan vocals and drummer Alex Ewell’s endlessly cycling rhythms, they sound like they’ve intently studied the Stereolab catalog. However, the band of self-professed music nerds are just as likely to name-drop bossa nova post-punks Antena, new age godfather Laraaji, or the original LA jangle-pop group, The Byrds. Dummy’s brand of drone-pop is intended to be blissful and spacious rather than dour and claustrophobic: “We love the idea that you can make layered, complex, chaotic music but not in the pursuit of it being difficult or abstract,” they have said.
Dummy’s dual guitarists Joe Trainor and Nathan O’Dell (both former members of Baltimore band Wildhoney) inject the album’s noisiest songs with jolts of distortion. “Punk Product #4” is the first time we hear them let it rip, before the brief, scrambled solo at the conclusion of “Daffodils” that sounds like Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan kept on a short leash. The latter song leaps out of the tracklisting, bookended by the field sample interlude “Unremarkable Wilderness” and thumping, Silver Apples-styled motorik of “X-Static Blanket.” This clever sequencing makes Mandatory Enjoyment’s louder passages pop and the quiet ones feel deeply hypnotic.
Outside of Dummy, the band’s members have spent time in unexpected corners of music, including Maatman’s role in the doom metal group Taarkus and her work as an art director for Southern Lord Records. With these years of experience, it makes sense that their lyrics would include elements of meta-commentary. Midway through “Punk Product #4,” Maatman defines the dilemma of any DIY artist wearing influences on their sleeve: “Years spent mining the obscure/What are they worth?/A couple hundred bucks a week/Scattered infinitesimally.” One song later, on the buoyant “Cloud Pleaser,” O’Dell lays out his complaints about the current state of rock music: “Everything homogenized/Easy to digest/Guitars crystalline/Sounds so pointless.” The two singers’ voices come together to trade calls and responses on the standout “Daffodils,” as the choruses provide a sarcastic suggestion to bury your head in the sand: “Never mind the changing times/Just ignore the signs.”
In his latest book, Muse-Sick, author and producer Ian Brennan writes that Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon remained on the charts for 957 weeks in part due to its vast dynamic range: “Those classics take a journey and allow the ear to rest—to listen to the noises within the ‘quiet,’” he writes. Dummy have understood this lesson since the extended ambient closer of their first EP, and both sides of Mandatory Enjoyment end with a similarly sprawling multi-part suite. Showcasing their attention to detail, a clopping woodblock rhythm appears halfway through “H.V.A.C.” before fading into clattering percussion and kosmische synth tones. “Atonal Poem” drifts through metallophone-like electronic bleeps reminiscent of Hiroshi Yoshimura, then returns with a reprise of the band’s chiming art-rock. In less capable hands, music so meticulously researched and constructed could sound like pure mimicry. Instead, Dummy have transcended their influences and crafted their own record collector gem.
Buy: Rough Trade
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Ian Brennan is a Grammy-winning music producer who has produced three other Grammy-nominated albums. He is the author of four books and has worked with the likes of filmmaker John Waters, Merle Haggard, and Green Day, among others. His work with international artists such as the Zomba Prison Project, Tanzania Albinism Collective, and Khmer Rouge Survivors, has been featured on the front page of the New York Times and on an Emmy-winning 60 Minutes segment with Anderson Cooper reporting. Since 1993 he has taught violence prevention and conflict resolution around the world for such prestigious organizations as the Smithsonian, New York’s New School, Berklee College of Music, the University of London, the University of California–Berkeley, and the National Accademia of Science (Rome).