[29 October 2008]
Dark Dark Dark is one of those band names that reviewers will take as a challenge. I can just imagine a guy at Rolling Stone getting an LP of Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All to review and going, “Metallica, eh? With a name like that, these guys better be pretty damn metal.” Similar scenarios play out in my head for groups like N.W.A., Fear, and Lightning Bolt. Dark Dark Dark’s debut album is titled The Snow Magic, which either tempers their band name or leads one to think, “They have to be talking about really evil snow magic, right?”
The first surprise when receiving the disc was looking at the band’s lineup. There’s Nona Marie Invie on accordion, piano, and vocals, Marshall Lacount on banjo and vocals, Jonathan Kaiser on cello and backing vocals, and Todd Chandler on bass. It turns out Dark Dark Dark is not a doom metal band or an especially depressed emo group, but an old-time string band. But unlike their brethren in Old Crow Medicine Show, Railroad Earth, and Yonder Mountain String Band, Dark Dark Dark does indeed explore the more, well, dark sounds of their instruments. The album’s opener, “Ashes”, effectively announces what the band is about. As swirling minor-key accordion and banjo evoke an early 20th-century circus setting, Invie theatrically tells the story of a lover’s rendezvous which ends in the woman accidentally falling into a river and drowning. That leads to the chorus, “I know you want to scatter my ashes / I know you want to scatter them far and wide.” The second song, “The Benefit of the Doubt” is a love song mostly sung by Lacount that begins with the lines “On your final day, did you think of me / And did I get the benefit of the doubt? / On my dying day, I will change my ways / And I’ll stop all this wandering around, dear.” The music starts off sparsely, with lightly strummed banjo chords and plucked cello, but shifts into a surprisingly jaunty, yet still minor-key, tune.
“A Cloud Story” is much more ethereal sounding song at first, as Invie sings about a dream she had against soft, reverby backing vocals and arco cello and bass. Then Lacount takes over the singing and the banjo and accordion come in, and the band immediately sounds old-timey again. Oh, and the dream that Lacount and Invie are singing about involves the clouds falling from the sky and the people on the ground patiently waiting to die. At this point, it’s clear that Dark Dark Dark are going to come very close to living up to their name, not an easy thing to do when your band includes full-time accordion and banjo players. But Invie and Lacount do an admirable job of bringing out different aspects of instruments that are best recognized for their upbeat sounds.
For all its dour subject matter, The Snow Magic is an entertaining album. The instrumental arrangements are a high point, and Invie’s accordion playing in particular is top-notch. Many of the songs here are uptempo and even approach being bouncy, such as the sea chanty-like “Ferment in Dm” (sample lyric: “And when I hold you underwater / count which breath will be your last”) and the piano-driven “That Light” (“Where’s that light you’re looking for / you can’t see it with your head underground / So just dig yourself out”). “New York Song” concerns moving to the city and has many complaints about it, but the chorus concludes that, “Being here is better than wishing we’d stayed.” Because Dark Dark Dark use their instruments in a variety of ways, even the slow songs manage to avoid sounding repetitive. Invie’s accordion usually drives the music with complicated and catchy minor-key melodies, but the band is equally effective when they hold back and let the vocals take center stage. The dirge-like “Dig a Grave” is probably the album’s best example. The accordion and cello play long chords under a simple banjo line and Lacount’s mournful lead vocal really sells the song, a lament to a dead relative.
Dark Dark Dark have a curious approach to harmony. Often Lacount and Invie will be singing the same lyrics, in harmony, yet they don’t quite line up. It’s an interesting technique that makes it sound like they were recorded separately, to the same music but without listening to the other’s performance. It gives the band’s vocals a slightly off-balance, disorienting feel which works quite well with the somewhat stranded-in-time vibe of the music. In addition, Minneapolis musician and Andrew Bird drummer Martin Dosh pops up throughout the album to add touches of percussion, from drums on the opener “Ashes” to xylophones elsewhere. He does an excellent job of accentuating the music without taking the focus off of the main band.
Dark Dark Dark certainly work hard to live up to their name. There is very little cheer to be found in the lyrics, but they’re far from the first musicians to specialize in the morbid and depressing. I would say that they warrant two Darks in their name, but don’t quite hit three Darks’ worth of bleakness. However, “Dark Dark Dark” has a much better ring to it than “Dark Dark”, so they probably made the right call. Regardless, The Snow Magic is a strong debut that evokes dark times in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It also evoked in me memories of the HBO series Deadwood, which featured a lot of dark times itself in the late 19th century, and often played downbeat period songs over its closing credits.