Dark Dark Dark and Spirits of the Red City at the Cedar Cultural Center

Dark Dark Dark publicity photo for Bright Bright Bright

The bespectacled and shy Nona Marie Invie may seem like an unlikely bandleader, but in truth the lead singer of local six-piece Dark Dark Dark is a gifted and engaging performer.  Thursday’s release party at the Cedar for the band’s excellent new EP, Bright Bright Bright, put on full display just how charming her quirky, somewhat absent-minded personality is, which somehow translates to her band’s subtle, nuanced style of music.  Opening last night were Spirits of the Red City, another collective with a similarly talented leader, Will Garrison, but who take a rather different approach to that musical formula.

Whenever there are enough people in a band to call it a collective, which Dark Dark Dark and Spirits of the Red City most certainly are, it can be difficult to manage the beast.  More often than not, the way these bands deal with the issue is by going the way of maximalism, creating as many different sounds as possible with the people at their disposal.  The results are often charming in a loose, sprawling sort of way, although it’s equally true that such bands tend to lack much in the way of focus.

Invie and her band take an unconventional route and play a very stripped down style of music for being such a large troupe (there were ten people onstage at the Cedar, including a four-person choir) with the extra musicians mainly helping add subtle layers of sound in a live environment that would otherwise be overdubbed or looped in studio.  At the center of the band, Invie and Marshall LeCount play off each other in their duets and between-song banter, with LeCount taking over lead vocals on a handful of songs.

Live, there didn’t seem to be as much of a balance between the two as there is on record, as on stage Invie seemed very much the driving force behind much of the band’s distinctive European cabaret sound.  Her wheezing accordion is at the heart of most of Dark Dark Dark’s waltzing songs, which have a flavor loosely reminiscent of Beirut but with the sweep of a classical movement and the flourish of a truly adventurous artist – a combination that is moody and haunting in a way that taps into a centuries-old sense of remorse and mystery.  All things considered, it isn’t surprising that they’re quickly building a reputation beyond the Cities.

Spirits of the Red City, in comparison, might benefit from putting more of a focus on Garrison.  He’s a compelling performer with a unique voice and a strong presence.  His songs have a great deal of lyrical and emotional complexity, which is something that doesn’t usually translate to a big-band format; some of the best collectives, in fact, thrive on the fact that they put lyrical content aside in favor of exploring the dynamics of their multi-instrumental pallets.  Like Invie, Garrison is more of a songwriter.  However, Garrison seems to obscure some of the finer points of his own music and performing style within a crowd of people, which is a curious thing to do given his talents.

This isn’t to say that the band isn’t good; on the contrary, the music they play, as well as the show they put on Thursday night, is beautiful, warm, and engaging, a ragged but exuberant act in full communal splendor as the eight musicians huddled around the circle of mikes at the side of the stage.  But there’s also little doubt that the highlight of the Cedar set came when the band stripped down to a handful of people and Garrison effectively performed a solo song.  It was captivating, it was moving, and none of the music’s heft was lost or blurred out by an overload of sound.

Hopefully, like his counterpart in Dark Dark Dark, Garrison can learn to maximize the benefits of his band mates to tighten up and strengthen his promising musical vision.

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