Reviewed: Dark Dark Dark
Who Needs Who
(Supply & Demand Music, Released October 2, 2012)
Who Needs Who is the third effort from Minneapolis-bred, New Orleans-based band, Dark Dark Dark. It’s a reverb-laden and haunted effort that evokes the warmth of an old house, with its soft, worn wood floors and large rooms; it’s complete with the murmurs and voices of all those who have passed through the place. Imagine if a closet in that house hid a cache of folk instruments: an old grand piano with tatty keys, a beat-up and chipped accordion, the clarinet and trumpet from a long retired New Orleans jazz band. If a group of insanely talented players opened that closet and recorded their efforts, perhaps something like Who Needs Who would emerge.
With the band name and album title, it’s clear the band likes repetition. It shows on Who Needs Who that they understand how to use it. On these ten tracks, repetition of words and sounds gradually takes each song to a quiet and affecting peak.
The album is anchored by Nona Marie Invie’s richly timbered voice and powerful piano. She uses her voice much like a reed instrument, a clarinet or oboe. On tracks like “Meet in the Dark,” she runs it through beautiful and emotive lines, drawing out the syllables of her sparse and clear lyrics. A surprising number of the lyrics are outright statements—“When you want everything to stay the same / things change,” for example—repeated again and again, infused with different pressures and burdens by Invie’s bare voice. It’s a difficult lyrical trick to pull off, but for the most part, Dark Dark Dark succeeds.
Her voice lilts easily and conversationally through the album, backed by simple and confident instrumentation—accordion, clarinet, banjo, and tasteful horn arrangements. The drums are subtle and loose, heavy on brushes, seemingly happy to live in the back of the songs. Invie’s left hand on the piano provides the steady beat, allowing the drums to click and swish instrumentally in the background. On a track like, “The Last Time I Saw Joe,” the drummer shifts the beat and emphasis on almost every verse, creating a wonderfully engaging variety.
“Tell Me” adds a pleasantly fuzzed guitar and an almost radio-ready beat to the mix, dipping a toe into far more commercial waters. Unsurprisingly, it’s the first single.
“Patsy Cline” and “Hear Me” both feature lead lines where Invie and Marshall LaCount’s voices mesh together to nearly the point of unison, a syllable or two breaking out of the mix and away from each other. LaCount and Invie were in a relationship that dissolved last year—right before the band began recording these songs. The band sounds tightly unified, despite what must have clearly been an awkward situation.
But the breakup is still germane. Invie’s lyrics swirl around the recent loss, her mind seeming to settle in different places on each track. In “Tell Me,” “I want to live in the time / when you cherished me”; in “Patsy Cline,” “Now that you’re gone / my life goes on.” On the latter, LaCount lends more masculine background vocals, which creates a pleasant—and necessary—counterpoint to Invie’s confessional voice and words.
By the end of the album, these slow and repetitive climbs begin to blend together a bit. “Hear Me” begins so slowly that by the time the payoff arrives (well worth the wait, I should note), many listeners may have flipped forward to find some of the liveliness and spontaneity of the album’s first half.
That’s the danger of leading off with your best song. The title track is beyond a doubt the highlight. It opens the album, giving listeners an introduction to the atmospheric, chamber-influenced pop that will follow. It’s instantly likeable, hummable. On each chorus, Invie’s voice slides from the first who and tacks up to the needs, a note slightly outside her range. She hits the note with a yearning passion that can’t help but haunt one’s mind for the few hours after you first hear it.
Then, in the latter half of the title track, the band lets go into a definitively New Orleans jazz-fused romp at double speed, threatening to derail the whole song in a flurry of piano, horns, and brushed snare. Just as abruptly, the gambol ends and we’re back to Invie’s cooed vocals leading a chorus of warm and organic voices, albeit with a slightly altered tonality and mood. It ends with a nostalgic pop piano, seemingly pulled from an Elton John or Billy Joel song.
“Who Needs Who” embodies the folk sensibilities Dark Dark Dark has integrated into their sound—seemingly from all over the world and their own backyards at once—and urges the listener forward. If you’re like me, when the album lags in the second half, you might find yourself returning to its simple and engaging sound.
Ultimately, the album ends on a more uplifting, redemptive note, with “Meet in the Dark,” a wonderfully Parisian-influenced ballad, and “The Great Mistake,” which borrows a cavernous and full choir of voices that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Fleet Foxes release.
Who Needs Who is a natural and inviting collection of songs that’s guaranteed to eventually slip beneath your skin and stay with you. It bears repeated listens. No matter how familiar an old house is, it’s a worthy endeavor to wander through the halls and examine more carefully the old photos you may have first overlooked. This collection of songs is intelligent, fresh, and emotionally resonant, maintaining just enough opaqueness to keep the listener guessing. In “Meet in the Dark,” Invie sings, “I will never get tired of singing these songs.” Whether you’ve been watching this five-piece since their 2008 debut album, or whether you’re only clueing in now: This is definitely good news.
Order Who Needs Who here.