The first five songs from Everything Dies, the proper new full-length album from Des Ark, should feel familiar.
Early in 2010, Aimée Argote—the singer, songwriter, soloist and bandleader who has powered Des Ark for a decade now—recorded a simple acoustic set at Duke University's radio station, WXDU-FM. Argote was nearing the release of Don't Rock the Boat, Sink the Fucker, the glorious 2011 LP that allowed her to lead little orchestras, a ricocheting punk band and a modest folk act in the space of eight songs.
She seemed, however, already over the numbers, opting instead to cut nine new songs in unadorned takes for the third edition of her occasional series of radio releases. In those early incarnations, the songs felt like landscapes of raw nerves, a place where abusive parents and lascivious men dared to tread, only to have Argote tell them who they were hurting and how they were doing it. With her voice cracking during "You Pregnant Motherfucker," she implored a friend to believe in herself, not some boy, and to trust that "we won't be lonely/when we're alone." She murmured her way into beautiful vexation during "Coney Island Street Meat," a song that examined the bounds of lust and love, regret and commitment. These were, in essence, first-take folk songs, captured with near-minimal fuss.
Though some of the titles have changed and some of the lyrics have been surgically tucked, Argote recycles six of these songs (including one from an earlier radio session) on Everything Dies—five up front, chased by an impressionistic, parlor piano-and-woodwind version of "Nitetime Moths" in the closing position. But these aren't mere repeats: During the last four years, Argote and an astonishing cast of collaborators reimagined these tracks and conjoined them to three new ones in six studios spread over five states.
The once-rudimentary "Peace to You Too, Motherfucker" now sports webs of layered harmonies, upright bass and meticulous percussion so complex it suggests a small chamber ensemble. "You Pregnant Motherfucker" is a romantic waltz, the cracks in Argote's voice now patched and lifted by an arrangement that seems to celebrate the possibility of being alone, not the persecution of it. And "Ties," which Argote rescued from her second WXDU volume in 2007, pivots perfectly between Des Ark's pasts in insurgent punk and ostentatious composition. When she sings of junkies, hope and loss, strings and electric guitars pull taut beneath her, making her navigate a tightrope not entirely unfamiliar for her subject.
In the half-decade or so since Argote unveiled these songs, she's lived with their characters, gotten to know and understand them and even communicated with them. The sophisticated production tells us more about them than those old first takes ever could, adding welcome nuance and depth to these fraught scenarios. Still, the settings rarely if ever get in the way of the songs' true essence, of the situations that gave rise to such testimonials.
That's especially evident in how well the aged numbers nestle against the new. With its jaunty handclaps and bright piano, the fetching "Don Taco & His Hot Sauce Toss" pushes Des Ark as close to pure pop as the project has ever been. Its worry for the future is as readily apparent as its instant hook. The same holds for "French Fries Are Magical," a rich, six-minute panorama that imagines love as both oxygen and poison. In every case, the core feels like a folk tune around which the proper recording has merely sprouted. Even at their most elaborate, the Des Ark songs on Everything Dies are direct, a situation stored as sound.
A similar scenario holds for Southland Mission, the first full-band album from Megafaun co-founder and in-demand collaborator-at-large Phil Cook. Since his arrival in Raleigh as part of the folk-rock quartet DeYarmond Edison, Cook has enthusiastically explored the roots of American music, from a cappella traditionals and soul-depraved blues to ragged country and soul-stirring spirituals.
Those interests occasionally reached the surface in Megafaun, but Cook embraced them in earnest as soon as he stepped out by himself. As with Des Ark, there was some trepidation to start, as though his solo guitar exercises and furtive first takes at individual singing were tests to make sure it could be done. But the nine-song Southland Mission stops perfectly short of temerity. He harnesses a crew of a dozen instrumentalists and singers to make a magpie's glorious mess of all those forms. J.J. Cale and Dr. John, Mavis Staples and Bobby Charles, Levon Helm and the Grateful Dead: It's all here, at last wrestled into a whole by a musician who took his time in working up the strength to tackle such titans.
Though Cook is not a native Southerner, he's embraced the region's endemic styles and applied them with great fervor to scenes that still feel personal. "Sitting on a Fence Too Long," for instance, is a motivational number, an anthem for self-confidence that scans like a pen-pal transmission from Cook the current bandleader to Cook the old sideman. He dips into the dankest clubs in the Bayou and then steps gloriously up to the pulpit. With the help of Mandolin Orange's Andrew Marlin and fiddle extraordinaire Bobby Britt, "Belong" flits through bluegrass, gospel and cosmic country. It's sweetly bucolic and entirely individual, an old rural intersection Cook seems to have discovered on his solitary travels.
But it's his cover of "1922," written by Midwest mentor Charlie Parr, that finds Cook at his best, both as singer and bandleader. This is a tale of individual woe, where a young man given to misadventure hits the road only to find relief and redemption back at home. As such, Cook and his band turn it into a masterclass in polyglot Americana, with rock oomph, country fiddle and blues exhortations clawing for space within one three-minute narrative. The battle is as thrilling as the song itself, a real-life manifestation of the world and the music it makes.
Albums tend to be acts of mitigated truths, where the realities and errors of existence are softened and corrected by studio tricks. Both Des Ark's Everything Dies and Phil Cook's Southland Mission benefit greatly from the rooms and bands that helped make them. But they do not feel circumspect, distant or cautious. Instead, they are vivid translations of personal truths—fussed over long enough to be interesting, sure, but not enough to blur the realities of the people who wrote them.