My first encounter with Dark Dark Dark came courtesy of their Daytrotter series, back when it was still a free service. I still consider their session one of the best that Daytrotter’s done and was further won over by the band after seeing them live at the University of Madison in 2009, opening for Why?. Then I started listening to their studio material and none of it grabbed me as effectively as their live material had, though it always impressed. Whatever minor problems plagued their records in the past have been remedied with Who Needs Who, their most recent record, a sprawling display of elegance, refinement, and beauty.
Who Needs Who opens with the track that it’s named for, sending stately piano chords cascading out of the speakers. For those who are unfamiliar with Dark Dark Dark’s general aesthetic, this is a perfect introduction. There’s bits of Beirut added onto a very heavy Regina Spektor influence which ends up equaling something on par with the former and much more fascinating than the latter. The Balkan influence co-exists nicely with classical, Southern Gothic, and a small dash of Calypso. At various points in “Who Needs Who” there are small bursts of each, including one section that manages to highlight them all simultaneously. To say this record gets off on the right foot with that track would be a criminal understatement.
Fortunately Who Needs Who sustains itself in quality, in pacing, and in sequencing, which is more than a lot of record’s can say after starting off with a track as powerful as “Who Needs Who”. The first step the band takes in dissolving any doubts that things will fall apart is with the fantastic “Tell Me”, which finds them dipping into an unexpected shoegaze influence, wisely using it for atmospheric purposes rather than having it be the driving force behind the song. That, of course, goes to Nona Marie’s fantastic ability on both vocals and keys. Now, Dark Dark Dark have bared their teeth before but they’ve never seemed as frighteningly sharp as they do on “Tell Me”. That one-two punch of songs constitutes one of 2012’s best immediate openings on a record. “Last Time I Saw Joe” keeps things pushing forward and more than matches the records standard of excellence early on.
After the propulsive ending of “Last Time I Saw Joe” comes “Patsy Cline”, which slows the tempo with a gorgeous first half that slowly builds into a wonderfully understated climax that breaks for the last chorus, effectively demonstrating the band’s enviable songwriting prowess. “Without You”, the ensuing track, is the only song on Who Needs Who that takes a while to truly settle into itself. However, the payoff in “Without You” far outweighs the drawbacks of its earlier moments. “How It Went Down” reveals some of Dark Dark Dark’s jazzier influences and marks the true point of strength in cohesion for Who Needs Who, the moment where the record as a singular entity seems to be assured of complete unification.
Another intensely strong moment for the record comes in the form of “It’s A Secret”, which features an incredibly captivating melody and some of Marie’s most exquisitely expressive lyrical passages. There’s a darker undercurrent propelling “It’s A Secret” that only makes it stand out more. Yet, it’s restrained enough to not stand out or overwhelm anything surrounding it and works perfectly both contextually and as a standalone song. “It’s A Secret” also features one of Who Needs Who‘s strongest horn arrangement on a record full of them. “Hear Me” continues to delve deeper into the darker undercurrents present on “It’s A Secret” and bring the shoegaze influence back at an even more prominent level. Coming after such a gentle song, it hits like a freight train and has the potential to leave you breathless, hanging on to every subtle nuance. Together, they represent the record’s second true knockout one-two combination.
Who Needs Who‘s closing pair of tracks, the Jon Brion-esque “Meet in the Dark” and “The Great Mistake”, achieve similar heights as the preceding two tracks, though they’re slightly more predictable. They’re both meticulously arranged and artfully rendered in structure and feature some intriguing dynamics that most bands operating in this genre aren’t willing to try. “Meet in the Dark” has a brief harrowing moment highlighted by distorted guitars and features a few fleeting moments of feedback before settling back into relative quietude, setting up the last track to be either a tranquil and meditative piece or an abrasive blast of piano-punk. Ultimately, the band sticks to their proven strength and delivers one of the most restrained and delicate songs on the record, providing a compelling ending to an utterly worthwhile journey.