A modest Tuesday night crowd of boys with backpacks and serious-looking girls in paisley dresses headed out to catch Californian Dum Dum Girls for their Peats Ridge sideshow at the Corner Hotel in Melbourne this week.

Local literature-geek troubadours Dick Diver were first up as the late summer sun was still beating down upon the Corner’s rooftop beer garden. In front of a small but reverent gathering of fans, they defiantly made the most of their 8pm timeslot. A band not necessarily known for roof-raising antics or singalong pop numbers, their early evening set, like much of their catalogue, played out like the prologue to a rich character-driven novel.

Next up were local lasses Super Wild Horses, the rambunctious two-piece who have been making a name for themselves in Australia’s burgeoning no-fi garage scene. Sporting a name invoking the bizarre combination of 8-bit video games, Banjo Patterson and Rolling Stones ballads, they quickly put any sentimental daydreams to bed with their unrestrained two-minute blasts of noise. Known for their instrument swapping antics, Hayley and Amy rarely even bother with the bottom three strings on their vintage style Danelectro, and occasionally end up resembling a pared-back female Eddie Current Suppression Ring. The girls’ garagey, bluesy sound, tastefully embellished with minimalist harmonies, elicited an impassioned response from an otherwise fairly still crowd.

With barely enough time between sets for a cold drink in the beer garden, Dum Dum Girls took the stage ten minutes before their advertised start time of 10 o’clock. In teeny black dresses and sassy leggings, up on stage the girls resemble a troupe of merciless fembots from the Sin City universe. Hardcore fans crowded around the front of the stage, while towards the rear, lurking in shadows, stood riot grrl vigilantes whose perfume was as potent as their icy glares.

Opening with the title track from their EP He Gets Me High, the Dum Dum Girls quickly settled into a rhythm that didn’t falter or take a backwards step for the rest of the evening. Overflowing with catchy harmonies, the band bring a surprising yet satisfyingly heavier sound to their live show than the airy production on their recordings gives them credit for. Without a single word of introduction, their cool demeanor and lack of fanfare is worrying, even a little intimidating, yet is quickly belied by their sweet-as-syrup songcraft.

Up on stage, the Dum Dum Girls themselves are none too revealing. Lead Girl Dee Dee wore a miniature leather jump suit and sailor’s anchor tattoo on her upper arm with just the right amount of irony. Bass player Bambi, a candidate for red-headed bombshell of the year, limply gyrates at a barely detectable rate which is completely out of time with the notes she is playing, in a fashion that seriously blurs the line between sensual and comatose. Stage left guitarist Jules, taking occasional visual cues from Dee Dee, plays a white axe which looked as if it should have had a Spinal Tap-style metal keyboard attached, but didn’t. Meanwhile, tucked in the dark recesses at the rear of the stage, drummer Sandy must have drank all the other band members’ Red Bulls before the gig, tossing her long hair back and forth in an offhand manner that can only really be described as downright sexy.

Dee Dee is often backed on vocals by one, two, or all three of her Dum Dum buddies at a time, but they never sound like they are overdoing their shtick. In fact, the band are at their most potent when they embrace simple songwriting and go for a full-frontal pop attack. Even with the added grunt of their live show, their pop jams push forwards with so much more drive than atmospheric efforts such as lead single “Coming Down,” the likes of which tend to reach a bit beyond their musical wingspan.

On the other hand, with such a knack for hooks tracks such as “Bedroom Eyes” don’t even need more than three or four chords to make their point; since the Dum Dum Girls already occupy a niche within a niche, anything that strays too far from the norm is likely to unnecessarily overcomplicate a sound that is better the more straightforward and honest it is. With this in mind, the highlight of the night was probably “In My Head,” a punchy yet plaintive number and that rarest breed of Dum Dum Girls tracks that actually contains a proper bridge in addition to a killer chorus. Drummer Sandy bashed away at her kit like it was the last song she would ever play, effectively doubling the band’s volume for three glorious minutes of shameless 60s nostalgia, while the other girls used her stop-start dynamic as the blueprint for their razor-sharp three part harmonies.

If Dum Dum Girls aren’t going to win any awards for unusual songwriting, they certainly won’t for stage presence. Dee Dee was the only band member to actually talk – although she never identified any songs by name, there was no context given, no between-song banter and only trace amounts of crowd acknowledgement – and with the exception of a few anti-establishment revellers in front of the stage, the crowd themselves at times resembled the AGM of the National Crossed Arm Society. However, this this was a gig that was musically far more enjoyable than its premise might suggest, by four girls who simply refuse to let joking around get in the way of having a good time.

The only crack in the cool facade came as the band hot-footed it from the stage after their encore, an endearing cover of G.G. Allin’s “Don’t Talk To Me,” when Jules permitted herself a smile and a girly little wave for the appreciative Melbourne crowd. In an evening that thrived on its own efficacy, the band bashed through about fifteen songs in under an hour and were off stage before 11pm, and everybody went home and baked cupcakes.

–  Darren Gubbins