Dark Dark Dark plays on hot hot hot night

Dark Dark Dark, in chiaroscuro. (Photo by Cameron Wittig.)
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The crowd in Long Island City’s Socrates Sculpture Park on Wednesday evening was cheerful, if somewhat sluggish from the million-degree heat. Crusty punks and girls in rustic summer dresses—a sweaty 1,200-person mass in all—shared blanket space and water on the grass. They were there for a free event organized by Rooftop Films, featuring a screening of a remixed version of the film Flood Tide and a concert by the creepfolk band Dark Dark Dark.

The pairing made more than aesthetic sense: the film’s director, Todd Chandler, is a member of the band. The film centers on the floating junk city/sculptures dreamed up by the artist Swoon and cobbled into being by her team of artists, who sailed them down the Hudson in the summer of 2008. Dark Dark Dark had themselves been involved in this project, and many members of the band appear as characters in the film.

Enthusiasm was in short supply during the band’s set; it was a humid New York summer day straight out of Do The Right Thing, and the strongest reactions in the crowd were a few glassy-eyed people swaying on their blankets. But this felt appropriate, somehow: Dark Dark Dark play a plaintive, intimate brand of melancholy folk, background music for reading or cooking—definitely not for thrashing around a concert hall. Lead singer Nona Marie Invie’s vocal style manages to be both direct and ethereal, her deliberate enunciation complementing a vocal range that swerves high and low and always threatens to crack but never does. Any band with this kind of orchestral sound needs a really good sound system to do it justice; unfortunately, the Socrates system wasn’t always up to the task, occasionally dulling the piano or drowning the musicians in feedback.

As soon as the sun went down, the film began. It hasn’t yet been released in its full form, and this was a set of outtakes cobbled together and designed for live accompaniment by the band. There’s a lot of high-contrast, close-up shots of different parts of the boats or sculptures, which neatly mirrors the project’s aesthetic of composing a whole out of disparate elements. But the “whole” that results doesn’t really add up to a narrative or plot; there are moments that indicate the recession-era context (one of the band members has recently lost his job), and there are many takes of the band on the boat, drifting down the river and exploring islands, but moments that delve into the lives of the characters are few and far between. It may have been the heat, but sitting there in the park there was something especially vertigo-inducing about the long, moody shots: two different sets of young, tattooed white people sending wordless, vulnerable gazes to one another from different sides of the movie screen.

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But the narrative vagueness was to be expected; the full version of the film will be released in the fall. And the combination of visual and musical elements was just beautiful. As lovely as are Invie’s vocals, Dark Dark Dark are a completely different experience without words. As a purely instrumental band they achieved a greater variety in their music and recalled the primitive Americana style of John Fahey. It was an ideal match for Chandler’s arresting vision of the natural world.

Whether the film will work at its full length is uncertain; the only scene that really delved into a character’s history was a painfully clichéd dinner scene in which the vocalist’s family is baffled by the band’s wayward lifestyle. It wasn’t a promising preview of what Flood Tide will be by the fall. But, in the meantime, it provided a beautiful evening. It’s events like these—music, film, free, friends—that offer a reminder of why New York summers are worth the heat.