Without wishing to damn with faint praise, Des Ark are very good at titles. Despite the rule about not judging a book by its cover, Don’t Rock The Boat, Sink The Fucker is a statement of militant intent which almost inevitably leads to expectations of a harder-edged musical style. Frontwoman Aimee Argote has long been steering an inconsistent course between post-punk, Appalachian folk and blistering blues-rock, and likes to keep the listener guessing. But any hopes or fears for a more aggressive direction get neatly overturned as soon as opening track ‘My Saddle Is Waitin’ (C’mon Jump On It)’ announces itself with tremulous chimes and a delicate shimmer of strings.
For much of the album that follows, Argote’s spoken-sighed vocals, full of breathy emphasis and half-swallowed words, float over softly tumbling percussion and the kind of gently hypnotic acoustic meandering that transports the listener right back to the early 1990s. While Argote’s voice is capable of impressive and commanding heights throughout the eight songs here, there are fewer occasional flashes – in the intense and claustrophobic ‘Ashley’s Song’, the reproachful ‘Howard’s Hour Of Shower’ and the thunderous ‘It’s Only A Bargain If You Want it’ – where the strings turn sufficiently harsh and the drums stentorian enough to compete.
Punk is a bird of many plumages, of course, and as much about attitude as about aesthetic and amplification. While Des Ark’s music bears little relation to mohawks and gobbing, it screams punk nonetheless. In this case, it’s the lyrics which provide the spiky grit around which gently glistening musical pearls coalesce. Argote is a fiercely intelligent songwriter whose delivery and musical backing can tend to detract from the interest of her lyrics, which blend themes of isolation, heartbreak, ambiguous sexuality, alcoholism and self-loathing in language characterised by dualism and role-switching, again second-guessing the listener at every turn. It’s a style which, despite its listless and lo-fi veneer, piledrives straight through punk and out the other side.
Argote herself admits that “it takes a lot of patience to be a Des Ark fan,” and yes, coming cold to her work can be a challenging experience. But there’s a lot to recommend Des Ark and this long-awaited new album, particularly the subversive poppiness of ‘FTW Y’all!!!’, the yearning for an idealised simplicity of coupledom on ‘Two Hearts Are Better Than One’, and the Springsteen-esque flight from smalltown lockdown on ‘Bonne Chance, Asshole’. It’s frustrating, though, that the music here too often feels too flimsy and forgettable to hold the listener’s attention, much less do justice to its subject matter. Paradoxically, on Don’t Rock the Boat…, a significant and intriguing hardcore struggles to break through a soft and insubstantial shell.