Calling Des Ark's Live on WXDU: Volume Two a masterpiece of modern folk music feels as superficial as it does problematic. The f-word first comes to mind because of Aimee Argote's instrumentation—a clawhammer banjo or a little acoustic guitar—on this second solo acoustic EP. But being acoustic, of course, doesn't equate to being folk, and Argote will alienate most idiomatic American folk or folk-revivalist fans. She lifts lines from The Mountain Goats and a title from mid-'90s R&B demi-star Ginuwine, and she twists winks into heavy topics. Her playing of well-worn instruments is unpolished, and her voice—a breathy entreaty that wavers and rises and whispers—is more aimed at confidants than consonance. That is, if you took Robert Plant and Alison Kraus' recent collaboration as a great "folk" record, I can't make any promises about this.
But the nine songs of this handmade, spraypaint-and-magic marker EP are irrefutable folk gems—authentic, real, and so of a time and place that they often sound like 2008 companion pieces to Harry Smith's old-time anthologies. Argote's songs are too raw to be affected, too specific to be nostalgic. She pinpoints problems—drug addiction, child abuse, empty lust, bitter pasts—and sings them down: "I can take you on a tour of my old neighborhood/ Here it is/ The bathtub where you'll find the love of your life choking up his own blood," she sings on "Covert Conspiracy of Spanish Speaking Cats," a death threat for the abusive father of a boy who needs help. She highlights hopes, too, as on the gorgeous "Two Hearts Are Better Than One," where one romantic offers his soul to another: "We could live a life of cowardice/ or we could build a little bower nest." During "We R Killing This Town!!!," she tells a new lover not to forget the past, but to realize this is a new chance to start over and, eventually, cut free.
But, above all, the characteristic that defines Argote's songs is empathy. She's singing less character studies and more empirical understanding, it seems, and the mix of pain and persistence in her voice is a vow of investment in the material and a belief in survival. She mixes her metaphors, drops a line or two and flubs the occasional note. Embracing such imperfection and letting Ross Grady record it in one take, she's real, communicative, one of us. That's a quality more important and intrinsically folk than most of the ProTools poseurs you'll currently find playing so-called back-porch music.
Live on WXDU: Volume Two is the Independent Weekly's Album of the Month for June.