The songs of Kid Dakota’s latest, The West Is the Future, are as heavy and dense as the artifact itself. Stark black and white scratchboard illustrations by Will Schaff fill a thick booklet that weighs considerably in your palm. It is grand, ambitious, and almost unrelentingly dark, mirroring the noise the band kicks up. The West Is the Future is both an exploration and indictment of Manifest Destiny as seen through the lens of Upper Midwest and Great Plains cultural phenomena. Darren Jackson’s opus is at times as flawed and messy as the philosophy of expansion it critiques, yet it manages to succeed as often as not.
When I first saw Kid Dakota play live, I felt they had a musical kinship with the late great Grant Lee Buffalo , invoking an epic idea of America without the familiar partisan bait-and-trap of most issue-oriented rock. But although Buffalo was capable of raging against the machine on songs like “America Snoring”, they were ultimately hopeful, redemptive. Kid Dakota’s America is nihilistic in comparison. The lyrics are delivered in terse, repeated phrases; the music, a pummeling rock opera of contrasting dynamics, is anchored in the minor key. Despite its prog-rock accoutrements, its nature is reality-based, not fantastical. Therein lies the problem, because the dead-seriousness of the message can get a little silly when compounded by the theatrics of the music.
“Pine Ridge”, for example, is a portrait of the notoriously impoverished South Dakota reservation. To its credit, the song is unflinching in its descriptions: “With a government check / They go buy liquor / And it makes their thoughts go dim and dimmer”—a bitter pill for bleeding hearts (including mine) who aren’t used to facing uncomfortable truths unless accompanied by clear polemics against “The Man”. Jackson’s bluntness is effective, provoking you to question how you feel about what you’re being shown. However, when he sings about drunk drivers on their way to the “pow, powwow”, repeating the phrase in the same sullenly important tones, it sounds unintentionally hilarious, goofy to the point where you ask yourself a different set of questions: Is the song being derisive? Sympathetic? It’s too felt and forceful to be ambivalent. Let’s get back to it.
“Winterkill” features the album’s sunniest guitar work, but it’s a wan January sun nonetheless, bright and cold. The band sounds great as per usual, exhilarated and exhilarating. Low’s Zak Sally plays the strings of his bass like I-beams in support of the super-structures of Jackson’s songs. Christopher McGuire’s drum kit functions sans toms, so even the percussion is un-wishy-washy. Jackson’s voice tackles the melodies with closed-eye intensity uncannily like Thom Yorke’s, betraying both singers’ heritage in Queen-style acrobatics (not a bad thing at all). But then you glance at the lyric sheet opposite Schaff’s wool-capped trio of characters, rendered with angry or vacant eyeholes and angular, awkward limbs. What’s he saying? What’s he railing about? Alcoholic ice-fisherman: “The ice is thick / The air is thinner / No room to breathe / No sun to shine”. And later: “They’re drinkin’ heavy / The down is dead / Winterkill, overdrive / The fish are dead”. By this point, I’ve half a mind to slap Jackson with one of those frozen fish. If these fishermen are metaphors for some larger idea, or if it’s supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, it’s not justified in the writing. As it stands, it sounds absurd.
I like Jackson’s writing. I like its clipped, martial rhythms. I like the newspaperman’s details in “Ten Thousand Lakes”, the smarts of “Starlite Motel”. I love the band—its power, elasticity, melodic sense (and a shout-out to the good use of cicadas on “Homesteader”), the way they make long songs feel not-so-long because of their conviction and purpose. This album is a leap, a gamble, an artistic stretch that bodes well for Kid Dakota even if they don’t shoot down every duck. It’s got the dark majesty thing down pat. On “Ivan”, Jackson sings, “I might be able to accept the God who made this world / But I can’t accept the world that this God made”. Maybe this line is the key to songs like “Pine Ridge”. Maybe we’re all to be condemned; we all suck and deserve no sympathy for our crimes or our victim-hood. We’re just reaping what we’ve sown from the West’s snowballing expansion. The fruitful contradiction of The West Is the Future is that I’m not persuaded that the situation is as dire as the songs’ convictions. There’s something else spinning inside them that’s waiting to brought out and explored. Let’s wait and see.
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