Dark Dark Dark | Examining the Dark Dark Dark Side of Life

The Minneapolis sextet Dark Dark Dark is downright hard to characterize; the product of disparate influences and the singular songwriting partnership of vocalist/accordion player Nona Marie Invie and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Marshall LaCount.  

 
Their startling sophomore release, entitled Wild Go, is the full-length follow-up to 2008’s The Snow Magic, which we raved about on this site. Wild Go’s sound is a smorgasboard of banjo, clarinet, cello, piano, trumpet and omnipresent accordion weaving in and out of textured compositions. It showcases a strong Eastern European folk influence, a chamber pop aesthetic, a hint of New Orleans jazz and a Kate Bush-style singer/songwriter vibe. Describing it is difficult—hearing it is unforgettable.
 
“It does come from all those influences and more, probably, because we all have really active listening habits and loves,” said LaCount during a recent interview. “I think we set out to make the music that we’d like to hear, and we take influence from wherever we wish without being stuck making any one kind of music. We do, however, try to make a coherent body of music or contribute our established style to what we’re doing, so we’re not all over the place all the time.”
 
Listening to songs like the emotive, mesmerizing single “Daydreaming,” the atmospheric “Heavy Heart” or the oddly hypnotic “Celebrate,” you get a sense of unanswered questions. The atypical instrumentation and Invie’s powerful, haunted vocals seem to convey an awareness of pain and a search for release/revelation in equal measure. On their last album the band sounded a bit more unhinged, but there’s a measure of calm and warmth on Wild Go.
 
The Snow Magic was a document of everything we had done since the beginning of our band, which also means it was all songs we had written in the first year of seriously playing our instruments at the time,” said LaCount. “We didn’t edit at all and weren’t too concerned with the album as a whole. It felt like each song was an exploration unto itself. On our new recordings, we’ve had 3 years to develop how we write and work together as an ensemble and to start editing ourselves. The Bright Bright Bright EP that we released in March 2010 is intended to bridge the gap from The Snow Magic to our new record by visiting the older sentiments and establishing new sounds, arranging styles, and [through] the addition of a drummer and another multi-instrumentalist member. Another difference is that we’ve been a lot more intentional in setting up the environment that we record in, and it translates pretty immediately.”
 
Emotions are always upfront in the Dark Dark Dark’s music, owing mostly to Invie’s unmistakable voice. There’s tartness to her delivery at times, but ultimately she reels you in with her absolute authority and authentic expression of everything from vulnerability and longing to a kind of informed disdain. It’s fun listening to her repeatedly, trying to unravel a song’s intent. As a child, Invie sang all the time and admired strong female singers and songwriters, she shared. She certainly belongs in that category now.
 
“We used to listen to a lot of Carole King and Joni Mitchell,” she said. “More recently, I am inspired by Kate Bush, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Caethua—women who write good songs.”
 
It’s always interesting to find out how a band creates their songs, especially one as unusual as Dark Dark Dark. LaCount related a couple of examples, including how the memorable tune “Daydreaming” evolved.
 
“That song is a response to a response to a response, meaning that Hazel and Alice wrote ‘Ramblin’ Woman’ in response to Hank Williams’ ‘Ramblin Man.’ Elephant Micah wrote ‘Wild Goose Chase’ in response to ‘Ramblin Woman.’ Nona covered that song and then wrote her own response with ‘Daydreaming.’ That’s one funny example.”
 
The title track of the new album was more collaborative: “Nona was humming a tune and let me have a go at the lyrics. We wrote it in New York, and it was related to what we had been reading and thinking at the time,” he said. This included, according to the band’s press release, Tom Spanbauer’s In the City of Shy Hunters, which discusses the legendary trade of the island of Manhattan from the native inhabitants to the Dutch—and we all know how that turned out. But LaCount said he “wanted to write a song as though the island was returning to its natural state.”
 
Throughout their recordings, a signature component of DDD’s music is the use of the accordion. Invie and bandmate Walter McClements both play the instrument, and it appears on nearly every track. So it helps if you can appreciate this unique element, needless to say, if you want to lose yourself in this band’s sound.
 
“The accordion is pretty common amongst our friends,” said LaCount. “People generally say Eastern European, or Arcade Fire and Beirut—all of which we enjoy, but don’t really see ourselves fitting in with, exactly, in the long run…We use the accordion because both Nona and Walter play it very well and we love it. There are a lot of recordings lately that have a token accordion arrangement; it’s kind of funny to think of the wave of popularity that the accordion has had.”
 
Eclectic instrumentation and arrangements can make it hard to categorize a band, and in the case of Dark Dark Dark, you’re likely to see all kinds of labels applied to them: art rock, worldbeat, Euro folk pop. Even the dreaded catchall “indie rock” winds up serving as a banner under which to classify their genre-bending sound.
 
“I think the most interesting part of this idea, to me, is the debate on what ‘indie rock’ is,” said LaCount. “In our everyday lives, we don’t often see ourselves being part of American indie rock and have only recently decided that we could call our genre chamber pop or chamber folk. I enjoyed reading a Pitchfork article about the way ‘indie’ is used partly as a genre, partly as an approach to making music and touring.”
 
No matter what you call them, Dark Dark Dark doesn’t sound like anyone else, and it’s hard to shake them from your memory. Virtually every tune on Wild Go—“Something For Myself,” the poignant “Robert,” the stunning title track—gets under your skin, arouses your emotions and makes you want to hear it again to unlock its secrets. It’s an enthralling piece of sonic exploration from a band who’ve come a long way and have the potential to go much further.
 
“Everything we’ve accomplished at this point is beyond what we set out to do, so I’m very happy to be putting out this record that we’re all proud of,” said LaCount. “We really feel that we started with the most basic intentions and have learned everything we know through our own experience, and in this way we are still folk musicians… For the books, or for practicality, we are in debt for our music, which people don’t talk about all that often, but we all feel really inspired to continue pushing our music and developing our touring, so everything will be fine.”

 

Dark Dark Dark will perform at Off Broadway on Monday, October 4 at 8:30 p.m. Wild Go is released in the U.S. on October 5. | Kevin Renick

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