2018 has certainly been Erica Dunn’s year with four albums to her name across bands Palm Springs, Mod Con, Tropical Fuck Storm and Harmony. Palm Springs is the most vulnerable of these projects, with Dunn trading her electric guitar for a trusty acoustic as she sings simple yet affecting songs of heartbreak and the universally felt struggle for acceptance. What one finds on her latest album Palm Springs & Friends (released by the newly established Melbourne label Tender Collection), is a collection of songs that possess a rare but much coveted tenderness that creeps up on you, takes hold and inevitably lingers.
Dunn could be easily considered an old soul—she writes of her emotions, the people around her and the world with a maturity and intelligence that few her age can claim to possess. These qualities intuitively translate into the album’s instrumental backing, which fuses country and folk to create a sound that feels like it belongs to a different, almost bygone, era. There’s a real intimacy to these recordings as Dunn lays herself bare within her songs. The arrangements are sparse in comparison to her other projects, but this slenderness ultimately serves to accentuate the feelings behind the songs and the strength of her vocal performance. While Palm Springs is largely a solo endeavour, the songs take shape through collaborations with Paul Pirie and Steph Hughes (Dick Diver, Boomgates), with each musician bringing remarkable warmth and density to the tracks, perfectly complimenting Dunn’s words.
Delicate fingerpicking underscores opening track Tabby’s Star, a song that borrows its name from a star discovered by Tabetha Boyajian. Here Dunn sings of the love the world has to offer, along with the crippling nature of scrutiny that can accompany this offering. There’s also the deeper subtext within the song, which looks at how womens’ accomplishments are often overlooked or minimised—but through the song Dunn subverts this to celebrate a remarkable life and pay tribute to Boyajian’s accomplishments.
Meanwhile Real Tender is a contemplative track revolving on lost love, which perfectly encompasses everything that we’ve all felt in the wake of a break up; the way the clouds seems to hang heavy in the sky, the regret you feel for pushing your friends away, the resentment you feel towards happy lovers and, of course, the realisation that you aren’t as strong on your own as you thought you were. The most stunning moment on the song is the evocative imagery of the moon, with Dunn comparing its shine to the grin of a Cheshire cat—a facial feature which is cruelly mocking. We often find ourselves cursing the smallest things when we’re in pain, and this line in particular truly encapsulates what it feels like to be heartbroken.
Ain’t Gonna could be considered an anthem for those content with being forgotten and unremarkable, with layered guitars building up to the cutting line: “When I die I want there to be not even left a trace of me”. It’s the most defiant and assured we hear Dunn on the album, and serves as a reminder of the futility of life. Conversely, following track I’m A Ghost is a song of gentle observations. Taking place on a train station platform, Dunn’s almost whispered delivery facilitates a meditative state in the listener as we mindfully take in the little descriptions that conjures the song’s world.
Then there is Caroline which, in keeping with a theme of love lost, expresses bitter regret over a failed romance—the old time country feel of the song contributing to its wistful air. Hollywood Failure on the other hand is an exploration of all the possibilities out there in the world and the quest to find your place among the mess. The instrumentation is warm and buoyant, the track ending with an extended instrumental outro where impressive fretwork unites with the beating heart of the song, a humble egg shaker.
If love and futility are weaving through the album, there are also songs of escape: For René is one of these moments, with Dunn singing of trading in your hard earned dimes for a one way ticket into the stratosphere. On a deeper level the song is symbolic of backing your decisions, with the bittersweet concluding line, “I won’t feel a little bit of regret cause this world’s not for me”, reflecting the peace that comes with making the right choice for your happiness.
The concluding track Straw Girls is Dunn’s storytelling at its very best as she writes of the complicated history of colonisation in America. The song is a desperate search for truth as she sifts through scraps of history, recollections and her own observations to make sense of her surrounds and the importance they have on our understanding of ourselves.
While there is often considerable sorrow across the album there is a remarkable lightness that comes with the catharsis of songwriting: of putting the sorrow and futility into the world, of giving it form, of sharing it around. Listening to Palm Springs is likely to make you feel less alone, and it’s this quality that seals the album as incredibly special and one to continually revisit. Palm Springs & Friends is rich with beauty and rawness that encourages the listener to take a step back and reconnect with their own emotions and experiences, while also serving as a reminder of the power of music—to connect, inspire and facilitate the expression of emotions.
Top image thanks to Kurt Eckhardt.
Holly Pereira is a Melbourne-based music writer. She has been featured in publications such as Swampland, Beat Magazine and The Sydney Morning Herald.