Sugar Hill Gang
Some bands want to change the world, and Dressy Bessy is no different. But the group's methods don't involve any force-feeding of philosophy: The only thing the players might shove down your throat is a candy cane.
The band's psychedelic cyberspace home, at dressybessy.com, vividly illustrates this point. Vocalist/songwriter Tammy Ealom, guitarist John Hill, drummer Darren Albert and bassist Rob Greene are all depicted as kaleidoscope-colored cartoon characters who stare back at the viewer through larger-than-life anime-style eyes, summoning the onlooker into their candy-coated world. But carefully constructing a surreal existence isn't child's play -- and Dressy Bessy has worked hard to perfect the game. Over the past year, in particular, the band has distinguished itself as a powerful pop force -- a musical entity separate from the Apples (in Stereo) and the Elephant 6 contingent with which it has often been lumped in the past.
Yet despite the band's very grown-up commitment to success -- and the fact that its roots are in artsy, punk-leaning and indie pop outfits -- the members of Dressy Bessy see no shame in entertaining the playground set. Just like Raffi or Mr. Rogers -- or Danny Elfman and Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh. Last year the band's song "Bubbles" was included on Heroes & Villains, the soundtrack to The Powerpuff Girls cartoon TV series, alongside tracks from the Apples, Frank Black and Shonen Knife. "We are definitely fans of the show," explains the band's lead singer, guitarist and songwriter Tammy Ealom. "Of course. Who isn't a fan? How could you not love them?"
The album -- which chronicles in song the kind of good-versus-evil battles that are so quizzically rampant in animated environments -- was as much of a hit with adult fans of good, quirky pop as with pre-adolescent Girl groupies. However, it was Dressy Bessy's inclusion in the soundtrack to another film, But I'm a Cheerleader, that illustrated the duality of its sweet sounds. While Heroes & Villains proved the bandmembers could act like kids and play to kids, Cheerleader placed Dressy's music in a darkly humored, ironic and very adult context: The film features Ru Paul (sans drag) as a campy camp counselor who is part of a twisted right-wing gender gestapo whose mission is to set sexually confused teenagers straight. Two tracks culled from Dressy's 1999 Lucky Charms-inspired full-length debut, pink hearts, yellow moons, fit into the film's twisted premise like snug puzzle pieces. Despite the movie's strong underlying message, however, Ealom says that in true Dressy Bessy fashion, the band's motivation for contributing was pure fun.
"I don't know if content really had that much to do with it," she says. "One of the guys who worked on the movie was playing our CD around the set. The director heard it, loved it, and called to ask if they could use a couple of songs. [To us], just the fact that Ru Paul was connected was a cool idea. They were looking at it as sort of a spoof. We thought that was really funny."
Though Dressy Bessy's music often deals with grown-up romantic themes such as love and love lost (albeit to a perpetually poppy, sing-along beat), it's the band's sunny presentation that has garnered the most attention during the past year. Wherever Dressy Bessy goes, descriptors like "bouncy," "pixie-like" and "carefree" seem to follow, a phenomenon that is encouraged by the band's own promotional efforts: The group has a serious lust for retro and cutesy kitsch, and it permeates everything from its CD covers and T-shirts to that surreal (and vaguely disturbing) Web site.
Sometimes the air of cotton-candy delight that swirls around the band starts to look a little more like delusion. After all, escapism has a grand tradition in the world of pop music. But Ealom insists that adulthood is not something she is trying to avoid.
"I don't feel like I'm revisiting anything. Life's getting better. I've found something that I like to do, and I do it," she says. "As far as going back to our childhood, it really isn't about that. I think we all had good childhoods, so maybe we're just extending it and making it last as long as we possibly can. I am a happy person; it makes me happy to do this. I can't help that."
Considering the kind of year Ealom and her bandmates have had, there should be plenty to be happy about. Through heavy touring and promotion, the band has emerged as one of the stars of the pop-centric Kindercore imprint, a Georgia-based label that also claims Olivia Tremor Control, Of Montreal, and the Essex Green on its roster. Dressy Bessy has spent the bulk of its time on the road, touring both the states and internationally and reaching appreciative audiences in such far-flung locales as Japan. "They've embraced us for whatever reason," says Ealom. "We had such a great time [there]. It's just an amazing place. My father was in the military growing up, and I spent three years in Hawaii, so I kind of felt a little like I was in Hawaii, actually. It didn't seem strange at all."
In between touring, the band has stopped here and there to record: Late last year saw the release of the tooth-achingly sweet The California EP; with song titles like "Super* Everything" and "Hangout Wonderful," the hook-filled five-song affair should come with a warning label for diabetics. Harking back to a classic '60s-era bubblegum sound, it finds Ealom and Hill blissfully strumming their catchy candy-bar chords while Albert and Greene inject a percolating pop-rock beat. The band is currently working on SoundGoRound, its next full-length release for Kindercore, which is due out in June. The album will feature the usual bright Ealom-penned compositions, though dissecting the motivations and meaning behind them is something she's reluctant to do.
"It's hard for me to explain what I write about, because it's personal. It's nobody's business," she says. "If I'm sad, I turn it into something that makes me feel better. If you like the song, and it makes you feel good, and you take it for this, that's great. It's fantastic. Even if I feel bad, I'm not going to write something that's down and drab, because that doesn't make me feel good."
"A lot of people interpret the songs to be sweet, bubbly and happy, sunshiny sort of things, even though sometimes I'm taking jabs at someone who's gotten on my nerves or something," she adds. "It still kind of comes out sweet, I guess. I don't know how that works."
Dressy Bessy's recent success has come as a kind of vindication for Ealom, who got off to a somewhat shaky musical start with the cerebral pop-rock outfit the Minders in the early '90s, when they were still a Denver affair. One of the members of that group made her feel that she had something to prove. "He basically said I sucked, and I said, 'No, I don't, and no I won't. I can do this.'" Ealom left the Minders to take a gig as a background singer with the band 40th Day. Eventually she started writing her own tunes; when she paired with Hill -- both romantically and musically -- she began to realize her own vision.
"When I started dating John, that's when I was actually taught all the chords that I know today," she says. While recruiting bandmates, she looked for players who kept their playing simple and sweet. "I know people who are trained in music, and it does affect their writing, because when they play, they are thinking, 'Logically, this shouldn't happen.' Of course, when you don't know a lot, you would like to know a lot more, but I tend to prefer people who make it up as they go."
Ealom found these qualities in Greene and Albert, who'd moved to Denver from New York and who quickly filled out the Dressy Bessy rhythm section. Ealom met the pair while working her day job as a fashion photographer. ("It used to be my thing, but then I picked up a guitar," she says off-handedly. Stunning examples of her lens work, including a photographic journal of the band's recent trip to the Far East, can be found on its Web site.) The band recorded and played locally, though it often found itself referenced as a sort of Apples offshoot, a misconception the players have struggled to overcome. (That connection was often made all the more irresistible by Hill's membership in both bands, something he maintains today.)
Dressy Bessy's embrace by wide-reaching audiences has also been a comfort for a band whose sound has often been a point of departure from various popular movements within its hometown musical scene. Today that sound is somewhat at odds with the melancholy minor chords and molasses pace preferred by locals such as 16 Horsepower, Sarina simoom and the Czars, among others. Over the years, Ealom says, she has learned it is best to avoid certain pairings. "Every town has their scene or whatever. With my old group, we played shows in Denver with certain bands that were lined up, and it just kind of sucked, because I didn't like them, and fans who liked us didn't like them." But, Ealom notes, the band's recent local performances have been extremely well received, with diverse crowds coming out of the woodwork to catch a glimpse. "The last couple of shows have been great," she says. "I don't know where the people are coming from. I didn't even realize that we had that many people living here."
Dressy Bessy also differs from many local acts on another point: The band actually likes it here.
"People say, 'Why don't you guys move?' and we're like, 'Why?'" says Ealom. "Like San Francisco, we like to go visit, we have lots of friends there. But, you know, it's too much of a scene to get caught up in, and we don't have time for that. We're homebodies, actually. We wash our hair every three days."
For now, Ealom and her bandmates seem perfectly at home in their hometown -- and in the artfully artificial world they've created with their music. Like the Powerpuff Girls, whom the band helped bring to life through sparkling sounds, Dressy Bessy seems motivated by a fundamental belief in the power of good. As the bandmembers continue to strike out in the pop universe, they're proving that they can be heroes, too.
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