Drama mama

Pub date January 31, 2007
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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Relationships can suck sometimes. You know, the drama — the toxic chewing at the meat of a romance on the verge of imploding. Your nerves may feel destroyed after going a dozen rounds in an all-night bender over some questionable glance or wry crack, but love’s hang-ups do make for the best songs.

Take it from Des Ark’s Aimée Argote: she has no qualms about expressing herself and is no stranger to confronting her demons through song. A listen to the melancholic lyrics that escape from the Durham, N.C., native’s raspy voice on her band’s recent split EP with Ben Davis and the Jetts, Battle of the Beards (Lovitt), makes that much evident, in the lyrics of drug addiction, sexual freedom, and most prominently, unsparing heartache.

On the acoustic "The Subtleties of Chores and Unlocked Doors," Argote confesses distressingly, "We can get naked together, take dirty naps, whatever / But so long as we suffer apart from one another / You can hold my hand but you can never hold my heart." Throughout the recording the vocalist’s spirit sounds broken as she tells tales of tortured love, a theme that seems to haunt her but never really shatters her self-esteem.

During a recent phone interview, however, Argote’s cheery voice suggested anything but a bout with the blues. "Music is the way I process things that make me sad, and all of those feelings are so hard to articulate," she said. "I feel really inarticulate as a person in conversation form but much more articulate through music. I see it as an opportunity to explain the things that are making me insane, so they usually come out as bummers."

But not all of Argote’s songs sound as if she’s down on her luck. Though her new songs are hushed ballads augmented with acoustic guitar, piano, and symphonic textures courtesy of University of North Carolina orchestra members, Des Ark’s history stretches beyond that. The project began as a trio in 2001 but by the following year shrunk to a two-piece: Argote and drummer Tim Herzog. The pair’s music was a mix of angular riffs roaring from Marshall cabinets and hard-as-nails drum brio. Argote’s vocals ranged from primal wailing to throat-wrenching howling, and together the duo sound reminiscent of PJ Harvey fronting Unwound. Known for in-your-face live shows, Des Ark ditched the stage for floor performances to ensure an engaging experience for band and crowd.

"It’s weird when an audience feels connected to a band but you feel completely disconnected from the audience," Argote said. "I felt it was important to break down the performer and paying customer boundary because it really bothered me and makes music inaccessible."

Videographer Charles Cardello — who released Des Ark’s sole full-length, Loose Lips Sink Ships (2005) on his label, Bifocal Media — sees the connection. "There are not too many performers out there who can simultaneously scare the shit out of you, turn you on, induce fits of hysterics, confuse your musical sensibilities, and rock you to your foundation," he wrote in an e-mail. Argote "could probably just stand there without a guitar and wail for a few minutes, and you’d get the aforementioned effect."

Unfortunately, Herzog’s time in Des Ark was short-lived, and the band’s dynamic soon changed. In September 2005 the duo played their last show together, right before Herzog departed for Washington, DC, to become a bike messenger. Argote disclosed that though the split was amicable, she was really sad when he left.

"When Tim moved away, it was like ‘Well, there goes the one drummer I wanted to play with,’ " she explained. "There’s a lot of phenomenal drummers, but in terms of the type of music I wanted to play, I thought we made a good pair."

After considering a move to DC herself, Argote decided to remain in Durham because "it’s homegrown and not affected by the labels and popularity contests." She also contemplated whether Des Ark’s erstwhile aggressive sound was compensating for qualities lacking in the music. "I think becoming a quiet musician changed the way I perceived space," the vocalist said. "In our culture that’s a way people tend to become oppressed, and I struggle with it a lot. When you walk into a club with a six-foot-something guy and you’re in a loud band, it’s a lot different than walking into a club when you’re a five-foot girl with a banjo."

Argote views Des Ark’s current sound as a natural progression — the EP’s music possesses a certain repose, but the energy remains. Nonetheless, she said that — although she has a small collection of quiet songs she wants to record for her next album — she’d like to throw a rocker or two in.

"It’s not like I sit at home and write rockers, ’cause I also like writing quiet ones as well," she said. "When I’m at home and all I have is my piece-of-shit, busted-up, acoustic thing, I pretty much write busted, piece-of-shit acoustic songs as opposed to loud ones." *


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