Darcy James Argue’s big band meets “The Daily Show” in an ambitious, wholly fascinating look at American politics and propaganda
By Seth Colter Walls for Pitchfork
Composer Darcy James Argue has often found joy in quixotic ideas. Starting a big band, more than half a century after they fell from popularity, is clearly one. Giving that group the name Secret Society and titling an early collection of compositions Infernal Machines only added more attitude to the enterprise. His pluck aside, Argue’s calling card thus far has been an ability to combine his love of jazz’s past with more contemporary sonics like indie-influenced electric guitar and bass, as well as arrangement tricks culled from his study of classical music. He’s clever without being arch, a syncretic creator who avoids obvious imitation.
Real Enemies is his most varied album yet, and his most thematically ambitious. Because it was originally conceived as a multimedia stage show for the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, it has both the length of a play as well as a dramatic conceit, as it promises an exploration of “the paranoid style in American politics.” (That famous 1964 essay by Richard Hofstadter is quoted, in a slightly adapted form, toward the end of Real Enemies, in a narration by actor James Urbaniak.)
This is a savvy choice of topic, and not just because of our era of “post-truth politics,” or due to the range of conspiracy theories that have found purchase among different voting coalitions. The central masterstroke of Real Enemies is its realization that instrumental music can prove a useful forum in which to explore the shadowy manipulations of propaganda and state secrecy. The overtly American sound of a big band—particularly one updated with aspects of other modern song styles—becomes an ideal way to channel both vintage Cold War scaremongering and contemporary unease over cell-phone data harvesting. In this way, Real Enemies often shows how moods can wield more influence than words (or logic).
Argue and his band leave few conspiratorial airs unexploited in this giddy, often explosive 78-minute suite. There are discordant touches of noir (inspired by scores of politically cynical ’70s films like The Parallax View), as well as minor-key warnings that reference Philip Glass’ writing for the Errol Morris documentary The Fog of War. And there’s plenty of music that feels original to this idiosyncratic composer and his well-drilled ensemble.
Coming after a quiet, unsettling introduction, and a strutting follow-up track that suggests a detective pursuing a case, “Dark Alliance” is the album’s first mind-blower. In this brilliant piece of hybridism, Argue creates an opening groove from a vintage-sounding synth line and rhythm guitar funk strumming, both of which call to mind early-’80s rap. (A clip of Nancy Reagan’s anodyne anti-drug speechifying—“say yes to your life”—confirms the era under review.) Then there is a shift to Latin jazz: specifically, an adaptation of composer Luis Enrique Mejía Godoy’s “Un Son Para Mi Pueblo,” an anthem written in celebration of the Nicaraguan Revolution. Argue’s pivot here isn’t random—instead, it’s a narrative choice that points to the contradiction between the Reagan administration’s domestic “war on drugs” and its simultaneous eagerness to undermine the Nicaraguan Revolution by working with the Contras. A government review later conceded that the CIA turned a blind eye to cocaine trafficking by its allies during this particular foreign policy episode. (And the title of the song is a reference to a controversial series of articles that first raised this issue.) The slickness of all this commentary wouldn’t be half as powerful if the musical execution was less than stellar, but the Secret Society displays their startling virtuosity in these genre shifts.
Elsewhere, Sebastian Noelle delivers an electric guitar feature full of spindly menace during the medium-tempo introduction of “Trust No One,” just before a clip of onetime Senator Frank Church discussing the ill effects of CIA narratives planted in foreign media. Once the government audio-drop is over, the full band digs into some powerful ensemble writing by Argue, while Carl Maraghi’s bluesy baritone sax solo carries an even greater sense of alarm. In “Best Friends Forever”—a piece about the military industrial complex—the martial, Glass-style triads lead to an alto sax solo from Rob Wilkerson that at first seems darkly resigned, until Argue’s introduction of a bass-drum thump prompts lines that sound more like combat heralds.
Argue mixes references to conspiracies that actually happened with glimpses of infamous false rumors (like the “birther” controversy directed at President Obama). On “Casus Belli,” Argue composes swinging music as a comic counterpoint to some of former Vice President Dick Cheney’s grimmer assertions. If the pairing of text and score sometimes seems a bit flip, it’s useful to recall that matters of grave political importance don’t always inspire the seriousness that they deserve from the public, either.
Despite all these references, the album’s goal isn’t to be any sort of history lesson. Instead, it’s a stylish evocation of the wild (and sometimes seductive) incoherence that flows from crises in which key evidence is either obscured or invented. Given this, Real Enemies feels, at its root, like a plea for greater civic trust and more rigorous thinking. For all its crazy quilt patterns and disparate musical inputs, there are telling hints of this suite’s carefully considered structure: The minimalist patterns of “Best Friends Forever” are echoed later, in “Apocalypse Is a Process,” while the synth from “Dark Alliance” is brought back during “Never a Straight Answer.”
The album’s liner notes offer visual collages and context clues for each of the album’s 13 tracks, providing a hint of the original multimedia stage production. But the suite doesn’t really need them, as it’s sufficiently engrossing and cogent all by itself. You’d almost think it impossible for a big band album to do all this in 2016—but here’s all the evidence, right out in the open for you to inspect.