Pop music’s truest essence is arguably its emotional immediacy. Songs are arranged with a knowledge of how to trigger the brain’s pleasure centers, which in turn heightens the emotions of the lyrics. Experimental music, on the other hand, often makes sonic choices that are antithetical to those same pleasure centers, utilizing challenging sounds or sequences that evade traditional pop structures to prompt new sensory experiences. This means that any marriage of the two worlds requires a delicate balance. However, it’s no secret that bands who successfully crack this code frequently stand the test of time. The Velvet Underground are an obvious example, employing drone, strange tunings and a smudged production style alongside tried-and-true pop conventions.
Los Angeles five-piece Dummy not only share the Velvets’ well-crafted fusion of avant-garde and accessible sounds, but also their krautrock-like propulsion and rough-edged sonics. But Dummy’s noise-pop, ambient and new-age leanings are where they diverge from the classic New York City band. Over the past two years, Dummy have released reliably interesting drone-pop, marked by synths that fizz away as their guitars and percussion lock into stimulating pulses. Their music provokes similar sensations to Stereolab’s pensive kraut-pop and Broadcast’s swirling psych-pop, and although it may be hard for some listeners to shake those comparisons, Dummy’s forward-thinking approach and broad set of reference points largely prevent them from flying too close to those respective suns.
Dummy released two EPs in 2020—their self-titled debut and subsequent EP2—which display their playfully unpredictable side and a familiar warmth. Their debut centered on heady squalls of guitar feedback, but also offered detours into acoustic psych-folk (“Folk Song”) and new age-y drone (“Touch The Chimes”), and similarly, its follow-up impressed with both pop maximalism and ambient minimalism. Despite their varied sounds, the songs bled into one another to satisfying effect, and Dummy seamlessly integrated soothing elements with raw, noisy adrenaline. And like any good noise-pop band, they know how to wield odd synth frequencies in a way that achieves both balance and intrigue.
Now back with their first full-length Mandatory Enjoyment, Dummy continue to test their creative limits and pile on layers of polychromatic textures. The new batch of songs sound bigger and more urgent than their previous works, perhaps best exemplified by the bold, squiggling synths and immersive plug-and-chug sound of “Fissured Ceramics,” or the gnarled, euphoric guitar solo of “Punk Product #4.” The album sounds immense at virtually any volume, with synth hums that simmer so vociferously and become so prominent at various points that the tracks sound like they’re submerged in a sea of library music and videogame frequencies. Despite the songs’ substantial vigor, they don’t build to obvious climaxes, and their intros and outros are often abrupt. The twists and turns that occur within the thick of things are where songs really take off, as elements elegantly alternate between the foreground and background.
The album features some of their most endearing and memorable vocal moments yet. The wistful, back-and-forth vocals of “Daffodils’’ evoke a transcendent, summery bliss, as they sing in a reassuring tone, “Always put your best foot forward / Orange to brown, no tomorrow / When you’re standing tall, you needn’t look down.” At the tail end of the track, scratchy, violent shoegaze guitars join in, but rather than dismantling the track’s secluded serenity, they heighten it even further. Imagery of “velvet petals on my airbrushed skin” and “thorny stems beneath my feet” provides a visceral sense of texture—something the band also excel at musically. “Final Weapon” includes another affecting vocal performance, particularly in the near-perfect inflection of the refrain—subtle and almost spoken, rather than sung, yet full of warm timbres.
“Cloud Pleaser” and “Atonal Poem” are among the most thought-provoking compositions. “Cloud Pleaser” is chock full of strummy, chunky guitars and babbling background synths, and between the guitars and keys, they traverse a virtually infinite combination of tones. Add the unexpected pause to spotlight some rapid strumming, and it’s definitely a song that makes you lean forward. “Atonal Poem” sticks out as one of the most ambient and new age-indebted of the bunch, with whispery vocalizing and meditative, marimba-like sounds that tickle the back of your skull. Like in their busier tracks, the keyboards are used like beautiful stray brush strokes, and before you know it, about four minutes in, their minimalism crashes into their maximalism within the same song, encapsulating in six-or-so minutes of what makes Dummy so exciting. Droning guitars begin to pound and meet those celestial chimes, and their signature elements gradually enter the frame like the triumphant reunion of old friends at the end of a film.
Lyrically, Mandatory Enjoyment acknowledges how dead a lot of things feel and sound right now, but it builds a beautiful oasis of its own. “Punk Product #4” decries the commodification of angst, and “Cloud Pleaser” criticizes the banal nature of much of today’s guitar music (“Everything homogenized / Easy to digest / Guitars crystalline / Sounds so pointless”). Plus, those song titles are undoubtedly commentaries within themselves. Although they certainly have legs to stand on, they don’t spend too much time or energy griping about the state of modern culture. “Fissured Ceramics” and “Final Weapon” are marked by the melancholic imagery of the sea, with references to hydrozoans, jetsam and a “submerging blue” all evoking a disorienting transcendence, while “Daffodils” and “Atonal Poem” revel in the life-altering, serendipitous power of delighting in the present moment. At times escapist and at times a clearer version of reality, the album’s most consistent thread is perhaps its pursuit of joy and curiosity.
Several of 2021’s most beloved and interesting albums feature a cerebral, textured chaos that sparks a wide range of emotions—including records by Spirit of the Beehive, The Armed and Turnstile—and Mandatory Enjoyment certainly accomplishes that same feat. Their blend of noise-pop and new age music works on multiple levels, especially because both subgenres thrive on the fascinating intermingling of electronic and organic components. But what’s arguably most satisfying about Dummy is that their thrumming instrumentals evoke crisp lines, while their free-flowing, tangential textures color outside those bounds—their songs always feel like the perfect painting.
Lizzie Manno is a music writer, Coldplay apologist, bread lover and Spongebob memer. She’s a former Paste editor, with bylines at Stereogum, Billboard, FLOOD Magazine, The Recording Academy and Cleveland Scene. Follow her on Twitter @LizzieManno