"We never broke up,” Dressy Bessy singer/guitarist Tammy Ealom says on the occasion of the release of KINGSIZED, her band’s first new album in seven years. “It was never our intention to drop out, it just sort of happened. We were dealing with life, but we never stopped making music.”
“We didn’t quit,” agrees guitarist John Hill, Ealom’s bandmate of nearly two decades. “But we did go through a period of reexamining what we were doing, and we came out of it a better and stronger band.”
Indeed, the 13-song KINGSIZED makes it clear that, nearly 20 years into their career, Dressy Bessy are making some of their most compelling and accomplished music. Such melodically infectious, lyrically barbed new tunes as “Lady Liberty,” “Make Mine Violet” and the anthemic title track are potent examples of the band’s uncanny ability to wrap Ealom’s personally-charged, pointedly subversive lyrics in sparkling, irresistibly catchy songcraft.
In addition to showcasing the band’s musical chemistry, KINGSIZED also draws upon the talents of a wide assortment of friends, admirers, and contemporaries. R.E.M’s Peter Buck adds distinctive 12-string guitar on “Lady Liberty” and “Cup ‘O Bang Bang,” while legendary Pylon frontwoman Vanessa Briscoe-Hay adds her voice to “Get Along (Diamond Ring).” Minus 5/Young Fresh Fellows mastermind Scott McCaughey plays keyboards on “Make Mine Violet” and “57 Disco” and R.E.M’s Mike Mills sings on the band’s distinctive rendering of the George Harrison classic “What Is Life,” which appears as the b-side of the 7″ single release of “Lady Liberty.”
KINGSIZED, after the departure of original bass player Rob Greene, features an assortment of notable guest bassists as well, including Eric Allen of The Apples In Stereo, Jason Garner of the Polyphonic Spree and The Deathray Davies, Mike Giblin of Split Squad and fabled punk progenitor Andy Shernoff of The Dictators.
“We’ve always been a really self-contained band, and not the kind of band to have a million guest stars,” Ealom notes. “But losing a member freed us up to try different things and bring in different people, who came up with things that were different from what we’d come up with on our own. I went ahead and recorded some scratch bass lines for the songs on the album, and then we asked various people to play, and it worked out perfectly.”
“We gave almost everybody the song and let them do what they do, and we got some great things back,” adds Hill. “One of the bass parts actually set the tone of the song for me, and had a big impact on my guitar parts. On “KINGSIZED”, we sent the song off to our friend Mike Giblin and he sent us back three bass lines: the Ramones version, the Buzzcocks version and the Elvis Costello version. We ended up using the Buzzcocks version.”
The release of KINGSIZED caps a transitional period that followed Dressy Bessy’s 2008 release Holler and Stomp, during which the band cut back on its touring activities and limited their musical output to their 2012 Summer Singles series of digital singles.
“It was a combination of a lot of things,” says Hill, who is also a longtime member of The Apples In Stereo. “Holler and Stomp came out right before the economy crashed in 2008, and that made it much harder to tour, and hard to get people out to shows.”
“It kind of took the wind out of our sails for awhile and caused our morale to drop,” Ealom admits. “But it also forced us to think about how we felt about the band. We came out of that period feeling stronger than ever. Then the songs started coming, and I wrote this album in about a month.”
KINGSIZED also marks a return to the band’s early recording approach. As Hill explains, “With our first two albums, we were a completely D.I.Y. operation, and we recorded everything at home. Then we did our next three albums in the studio. Three or four years ago, we revamped our home studio, so we could record complete works at home. Now we have the sound quality of a real studio without the time constraints. We have enough time for stuff to jell and enough time to work things out.”
While KINGSIZED features some of the most focused, organic music Dressy Bessy has ever made, the new album is consistent with the pursuit of joy and transcendence that’s been the band’s mission from its early days in its hometown of Denver.
“When we started,” Hill recalls, “everybody was making music that was so serious, and fun had become really unfashionable. If you played rock ‘n’ roll in 1996, you were expected to be glum and brooding, but we wanted to show people a good time.”
“Sometimes,” Ealom adds, “we felt like we were in the wrong decade, like we should have been around in the ’60s, when bands weren’t afraid to look like they were enjoying themselves. It never made sense to me to go and see a band and everyone’s sulking and moping; I couldn’t relate to that at all.”
Although such seminal Dressy Bessy releases as Pink Hearts Yellow Moons, The California EP, SoundGoRound, Little Music: Singles 1997-2002, Dressy Bessy and Electrified earned the band an enthusiastic fan base with their effervescent, uplifting pop tunes, they also caused some observers to miss the tougher edge of Ealom’s lyrics.
“All of my songs,” she reveals, “come out of some sort of personal turmoil, or they’re me getting back at someone or something. But I think people hear our name and see our artwork, and they think of us as some kind of bubbly cartoon.”
“Some people saw the songs as kind of cutesy,” Hill notes. “But in fact, so many of them are Tammy saying ‘fuck you.’ But when we play them, we’re jumping around and smiling, because we’re having fun. Some people don’t get it, but our fans do.”
Now that they’re back in action with some of their strongest music to date, Dressy Bessy is happy to be back at work. “I feel like we’re just starting to get good at what we do,” Ealom states. “We’ve had a lot of time to hone in our sound, knowing what we want to sound like and figuring out what we need to do to get that. I’m really excited about the future.”
“We actually kind of know what we’re doing now,” adds Hill with a chuckle. “We used to always be flying by the seat of our pants, but we’re better players, Tammy is a better singer, and we’re a better band. I think we’ve recorded the best album that we ever have, so our plan now is to just get out there and rock, then keep on rocking. We need our fans and we feel like they need us too.”