(Edit: I've never done this before, but I'm changing my rating from four to five stars, one week after posting this review. This album has consumed my waking life, and I now believe it to be one of the best albums of the year, and simply too hauntingly gorgeous to let my original rating stand. I'll let the rest of my initial impressions below stand, however.)
There must be something in the water in Minneapolis. It seems to me that some of the best music is being created there--from the harmonies-laden, 60s-ish psychedelia of Magic Castles to the fuzzed-out, shoegazy bliss of Flavor Crystals--yet not many people have stood up and taken notice, unfortunately. The latest to come to my attention is Dark Dark Dark, whose album 'Who Needs Who' is one of the most pleasant surprises of the year so far, to me.
Upon first blush the album may remind some of Fiona Apple, and there are some similarities between the two. Both are extremely jazz-influenced, while retaining pop sensibilities, but Dark Dark Dark cover a lot more ground that falls under that tag here--from free jazz, to cabaret-style, to polka, to lounge, and everything in between--all with a folk vibe that's somehow both melancholy and blissful.
The opening title track is almost heartbreakingly beautiful, with Nona Marie Invie's gorgeous vocals accompanied only by piano, gentle trumpet, and slight percussion, creating a sad-yet-serene feeling (until it briefly shifts into all-out polka) that's sustained pretty much throughout the entire album, an album in which the central theme seems to be loss and longing. After what's probably the most instantly infectious song on the album--the up-tempoed and lyrically moving "Tell Me"--the mood turns almost theatrical on "Last Time I Saw Joe," a cabaret-style number that shows the full range of Invie's vocals.
Other highlights for me include: the accordian-laced, waltzing "Patsy Cline," the brilliant, soul-stirring storytelling of "How It Went Down," and "Meet in the Dark," a haunting tango-ish song with excellent vocals that, again, borders on the theatrical. There are no real faults I can find with the album, other than the fact that the down-in-the-dumps vibe never really lets up, so it is an album that's probably best when taken in smaller doses.
Overall though, 'Who Needs Who' is an excellent album, with moments of nearly overwhelming beauty, and one that deserves to be heard. And by heard I mean heard by more than just the music-obsessed people like myself who search every nook and cranny for music that's different, unique, but most importantly--and as is the case here--just-plain-good. If Dark Dark Dark keep creating music as moving as 'Who Needs Who,' however, I don't think they'll be banished in obscurity for very much longer.