Dressy Bessy's Tammy Ealom finally figured out that when you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. Now, with Holler and Stomp, she's got the album of her career and, at last, a touring drummer who gets it.
Ealom's epiphany came out of the frustration of touring behind her band's 2005 release, Electrified. That high-energy, indie-dance-pop romp created a stir when, in a broadcast feature, a National Public Radio critic favored it over Coldplay's slick leviathan, X&Y. It was a Tammy-and-Goliath metaphor for the next year of her life while she was on the road, competing against flash-in-the-pan buzz bands and other celebrities du jour. At the end of the tour, her disgust for the music business was exceeded only by her disgust over the fact that her songs weren't being treated properly by her drummer. Or seemingly any drummer.
Ealom's no whiner; she's among legions of vocalists including, famously, Linda Ronstadt, and song-sensitive drummers, like Calexico's John Convertino, who insist that percussion can make or break a song's lyrical intent. It's about the beats and not about the drummer.
"With the approach on this album," Ealom (also a guitarist) says, "I wanted to show that, 'See how important the drums are?' And drummers do realize that, but they get it mixed up with them being more important rather than how they fit into a song. I've finally gotten that across in our live band now. (Current touring drummer James Barone) is the first drummer I've thoroughly trusted."
Her approach was to record and overlay her own beat tracks for the album, one drum at a time, and then to write the songs to the beats. "I built in all the percussion, and then I listened to them to see what they inspired as far as the melody and chord progression and keyboards and everything. I built everything around the drums."
Also a graphic designer, Ealom began creating the cover art for Holler and Stomp at the same time she was laying down beats and writing songs. In stark contrast to her previous covers--sprightly, '70s-inflected, systematic layouts in cheery colors--Holler and Stomp's art is a schizophrenic competition between bright hope and icons of urban decay, an apt metaphor for the intensified competition and lack of camaraderie she finds pervasive in the music scene today as compared to a decade ago.
"My graphic design and everything, it all honestly comes from the same place. I only have one soul," Ealom says. "It's the first time I've actually started artwork and songwriting at the same time. I love that approach, and I think I'm going to continue to do it, because if I'm stumped on a song, I'll go and do something visual, and that may inspire me to finish up what I'm trying to say in a song, and vice versa. They go hand-in-hand, for sure."
In fact, Ealom says the song "Dressed the Part" was inspired directly by the cover art, although it could as well be about the band's typically snappy stage attire. But Ealom says all of her songs' meanings really are up to the experience of the listener. "They're open to interpretation," she says, "and the meanings of the songs change as they evolve."
So if Dressy Bessy's "In Your Headphones" doesn't exactly call to mind Lindsay Lohan's A Little More Personal (Raw)--"Another fricking album by a young actress," Ealom says--you're still welcome to think it should be in one of those iPod commercials with someone dancing down the street. And if the heavy, speed-pop "Ten Million Stars," Ealom's favorite song on the album, confuses you with its bookending bird-chirp samples, well, make of it what you will.
While a few of the songs on Holler and Stomp specifically reflect the album's cathartic intent, the whole collection is of a piece with its upbeat and spirited predecessors, and with the airy-edgy bounce that knowing indie-pop fans adore. And "Roundabout" even redeems the touring experience with a bit of trademark Ealom whimsy: It was inspired by the GPS system in the band's European rental car. Pet-named "Jolene," its disembodied voice is sampled in the song. "It was the first GPS-guided tour we'd done in Europe, and it was brilliant," Ealom says. "We never got lost once."
Now that the hubbub and distractions of the elections are over, Ealom figures everyone's ready for a good time, so she's looking forward to fun stops in Tucson and other points west. There'll be plenty of texture from the four other band members in tow, including her guitarist husband John Hill, whom Dressy Bessy shares with Apples in Stereo; multi-instrumentalist Paul Garcia; longtime Dressy Bessy bassist Rob Greene; and, of course, newfound, trusted drummer Barone.
"It's liberating for me, live, because I feel like I can lock into a song, and I can sing it, and it's going to be just the way it was meant to be."