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Music as a Port in the Storm

September 15, 2005 By:
M.J. Fine, JE Feature
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Members of Dungen: Swedish psychedelia
Here's an ingenious way to pre-empt criticism: A few intense but meandering songs into Des Ark's recent local concert, singer-guitarist Aimee Argote apologized for being unfocused.

It's just that earlier in the day, she said, her aunt had been spotted on TV, being rescued from a flood of biblical proportions, and her grandmother still hadn't been located.

So if Argote forgot a few words or repeated a chorus too many times, it was understandable. She was exactly where she needed to be, doing exactly what she needed to do: using music as a source of comfort.

Des Ark's sound would hardly be described as comfortable; Argote's prickly guitar lines and anguished wails are more cathartic than calming, and Timothy Herzog hits his drums hard.

Yet with the two of them playing their songs not on the stage but on the floor in front of it, surrounded by a rapt, all-ages audience (and by all ages, I mean almost exclusively 17- to 25-year-olds), a sense of community warmed the space (and by warmed, I don't just mean that the crowded, un-air-conditioned basement of Christ Church was sweltering in the late-summer heat).

The scene was a sharp contrast to a previous show at the same venue. The Faint brought their synthy tales of burning buildings and broken bodies to the church, as everyone calls it, on Sept. 12, 2001.

The lighting was spooky, and the songs were tight. I'd call the crowd numb, but it was more like oblivious; behind me, one girl griped about some guy who hadn't called her back, and how it was the worst thing that had ever happened in the history of the world.

Hyperbole? Yep. Lack of perspective? Sure. Insensitive? Duh. But maybe it was too early for everyone to appreciate the irony. In her own way, that girl wanted some kind of reassurance.

Seeking Some Distraction
The word Argote used wasn't comfort, though she was seeking that, too. Rather, she said she wanted a distraction, and in fact, the absurd song titles found on Des Ark's eight-song CD "Loose Lips Sink Ships" are a lesson in misdirection. Among my favorites is "No More Fighting Cats, OK?," whose wry title belies its serious subject matter.

"No More Fighting Cats, OK?" is a blistering critique of an immature boyfriend. "Every excuse that we make for men makes it that much harder to take pride in them," Argote sings. It's a serious issue that even that jilted girl at the Faint show could get behind.

Whether or not the singer had control over the real-life experience that inspired the song, she has the last word in the matter: "Have dinner with the family, start picking me up on time/You stop taking my car when I tell you that it's mine for the night."

Art, if only fleetingly, gives us the chance to control the outcome. But that night in the basement, Argote wasn't seeking control; she was chasing distraction from the uncertain aftermath of a disaster beyond anyone's control.

Let's hope she found it. Let's hope she found her grandmother, too.

If you want to wallow in discomfort, The Faint return to Philadelphia on Sept. 29 at the Troc. Their latest album, "Wet From Birth," isn't as doomy as their best work, but it's still as dark as their matching suits.

It begins with "Birth," a meditation on the rough journey from conception to leaving the womb from the perspective of one dissatisfied baby, and peaks with the demonic disco of "Paranoia Attack" and "Symptom Finger."

But if you'd rather listen to something comfortable, try Philadelphia quartet The Rarebirds, who play The Khyber on Sept. 22.

Chiming guitars and warm keys frame Carolynne McNeel's pretty voice on "Drowning Happy" and "Love Letters in Morse Code," and subtle horns and strings add an autumnal texture. It all sounds romantic if you're in the mood for that, but it's also a nice companion for the lonely.

What it isn't is mushy or maudlin.

Their debut, "Flight Patterns," got a lot of love locally when it was released early this year, and their new song "Better Than This" (available in demo form at: www.myspace.com/rarebirds) gives a taste of things to come.

For something completely different, there's the Swedish psychedelia of Dungen, who come to the church next weekend. You don't have to understand Swedish to get into their most recent album, "Ta Det Lugnt," but don't expect to understand a word Gustav Ejstes is singing.

Dungen draws from disparate sounds of the 1960s - free jazz, folk and freak-outs - but they mix those elements together in a fresh way. Over the course of the disc, they evoke dozens of moods - from bliss to dread, with detours into pop, paranoia and passion - without being jarring. In music, at least, comfort and distraction are everywhere. u

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