Des Ark traverses heart’s rough terrain

by Jordan Green

‘“This is what happens when you date people,’” says Aimee Argote, shuddering slightly as if to shake loose the detritus of an old relationship that left plenty of messy loose ends. ‘“I’m fine. I would be fine if I could remember what I was playing.’”

The statement seems to hang uncomfortably in the air at the newly opened Flying Anvil club there at the end of a warren-like alley in the Antiques District off South Elm Street. Her words are personal enough to cause some discomfort for anybody in close proximity, but abstract enough at the same time to feel like something anybody might feel.

The song has been played in a college radio station studio in Durham and once before in a basement in the UNCG student ghetto in Greensboro. Now a crowd of scruffy, androgynous-looking scenesters, many dressed in black sweatshirts with sloganeering patches stitched into their clothing, sits in a semicircle transfixed by the singer hunched over the acoustic guitar with a missing high E string.

The 24-year-old Argote, who lives in Durham, has been quietly building an audience in Greensboro over the past year or so, playing house parties and small venues in support of her band’s full-length CD on Raleigh-based Bifocal Media, last year’s Loose Lips Sink Ships. She sits on a silver traveling case that rocks slightly with the sway of the song. To her left Daniel Hart, a new musical partner, sits on a folding wooden chair sawing out some elegant accompaniment on the violin.

The voice and artistic vision behind Des Ark, Argote encloses herself in the identity of the band, which once included drummer Tim Herzog, and before him two others. Maybe it’s because her music is so emotionally threadbare and bereft of adornment or distraction. When she plays she practically rests her chin on her instrument and her lips all but caress the microphone in front of her, so the sound of her voice and the sound from the hollow body of the guitar come forth from the same place.

Like the other songs, ‘“Eloise’” begins with a tender, heartfelt profession and builds with the singer succumbing to a physical convulsion that carries the mournful melody forward in a jagged lurch to the climax of her spat-out catharsis.

‘“Nothing makes you want to quit,’” she sings, ‘“like a stranger telling you that the midnight parts inside your heart are all that’s shining through.’”

Many of Argote’s songs make frank reference to the desire felt during the acquaintance of new lovers, and to humble and squalid living conditions. Her lyrics are full of open curses and she sometimes slurs like Janis Joplin. There’s an element of personal adventurousness in the mold of Ani DiFranco in these travelogues of the heart’s rough terrain, and her lyrics declare on both sides of such risky propositions. As in, ‘“If you love someone you show it; you learn to open your arms and let go,’” in ‘“Goddamnit, Sweetheart.’” Or, ‘“You learn better when you’re always picking lovers who can help themselves,’” in ‘“Lord of the Ring and His Fascist Time Keepers.’”

You can also hear the minor-key sojourns of Cat Power. That’s not to say Argote is derivative of any of those artists; she shows the promise of casting her own equally dazzling light.

Argote, who is dressed in a black sleeveless top and jeans and wearing her brown hair in a choppy mess of locks tonight, approaches personal interaction with a candor equal to that of her artistic performance, but with a decidedly more upbeat and good-humored attitude.

She thinks back to where the songs came from, how they were compelled like a bug bite that needed scratching, how they emerged from a period of regrouping after her drummer left for New York last summer.

‘“After Tim moved away I didn’t know what I was going to do,’” Argote says. ‘“I had all my stuff in storage. I was sleeping on my friend’s floor. I sat in her rocking chair on the front porch and came up with this batch of songs. Every once in awhile I’d get up and eat.’”

There hasn’t really ever been a time when she’s led a settled existence, being the progeny of second-generation Italian and Basque parents from New Orleans who somehow landed in northwest Arkansas.

‘“My family’s insane but in the best way possible,’” Argote says. ‘“I grew up in Arkansas but we moved to France when I was young. I never felt like I was from anywhere, but I also grew up with a rich sense of history.’”

She and Herzog, then her drummer, spent about a third of 2005 on the road in support of Loose Lips, and squandered the earnings of an entire tour when their van was towed in New York.

‘“It’s a different mode of living,’” Argote says. ‘“Problems are very basic ‘—’ getting from one show to the next. It’s the favorite part of my life. You have a shoo-in because you know you’re there for the music. No one’s off limits because you don’t know them, and you don’t know their town. It’s ‘thank you’ and ‘I want to get to know you better.’ It’s nice to have no preconceived notions.’”

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