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Aimée Argote of Des Ark is responsible for some of the vocal harmonies and piano-playing on Old Friends, and although she’s never called the D.C. area home, she has a tight relationship with Pygmy Lush and shares its label (Arlington’s Lovitt). And her new record, Don’t Rock the Boat, Sink the Fucker, makes similarly successful decisions about the lessons of noise and the satisfaction of melody. Back in the day, she was in the queer-punk scene. Now she’s got songs that plainly yearn for a wide audience.
Argote’s only other proper album—2005’s Loose Lips Sink Ships—had some uneven songwriting and some casual production by Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis. The band was a duo then, but drummer Tim Herzog (also Argote’s boyfriend at one point) moved on after the album was released. Since then, Des Ark has been whomever Argote can assemble; for Don’t Rock the Boat, it was guitarist Noah Howard and drummer Ashley Arnwine.
Amid all that upheaval, Argote became a more expressive singer and a more refined guitarist. Her lyrics are still perfectly prickly, but she’s learned to trust herself when her melodic instincts veer heavily toward the pretty or the dramatic. (Part of the fun is trying to pinpoint whom, exactly, she sounds like.) She says this album is the first time that she’s been able to recreate all the sounds in her head.
Some of that success comes from producer Jonathan Fuller, who recorded many of the tracks at Black Iris Music in Richmond. He was guitarist for defunct post-hardcore band Engine Down, and he clearly understands what to nurture in a one-time punker. (Converge’s Ballou recorded a few songs, too, at his studio in Salem, Mass.)
The album’s big gestures begin almost immediately: “My Saddle Is Waitin’ (C’Mon Jump on It)” ebbs and flows on handclaps, acoustic guitar harmonics, and a steady kickdrum as Argote’s vocal mixes coyness and smokiness. The fact that the song is about a broken, drug-addled woman makes it even more intense; at the climax, the voices in her head tell her “I’d love to keep on loving you, my dear, but you’re already dead.”
That moment could’ve been weirdly gooey or overtly commercial, but Argote’s chops are right for it. On the other occasions when songs markedly ascend or accelerate, she retains just the right amount of command: The too-brief smalltown-angst study “Bonne Chance Asshole” feels like a career highlight, and the breakup tune “FTW Y’all !!!” (which is probably about Herzog) is a lesson in loud/quiet/loud nuance. “Ashley’s Song,” meanwhile, is relatively overdone, but considering its story of sexual turmoil (rape, it seems), the melodrama is appropriate.
Elsewhere, Argote tries to make sense of current flames—women, men, maybe fictional, maybe not. And she sometimes sings in an affected way to emphasize the narrative; not everybody will find it endearing, but at least she’s doing it for a reason. It’s because some lines can’t work without emotional framing: “When I look at the body of a man, what I see is a stockpiling of weaponry,” she sings with a near lilt at the end of “Girls Get Ruff,” and the delivery makes the line sympathetic.
On the pastoral, slightly symphonic album-ender “Two Hearts Are Better Than One,” which is obviously more sapphic than hetero, the words and melody rise and fall in nearly abstract ways. It’s classically feminine, it’s indulgent, and Argote knows it. But why shouldn’t she be the one who gets it right?