Portrait of an artist as a guitar autodidact

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Jacob Darden of Ameriglow (photo by Daniel Bayer)
Jacob Darden of Ameriglow (photo by Daniel Bayer)

by Jordan Green

“How come there’s such comfort in being deranged?”

The question is posed in Jacob Darden’s plaintive tenor at the beginning of “Dinner Bells,” one of 16 stunning tracks on Ameriglow’s new album, A Heavy Heaven for Robby, leading into a splendorous, warped progression of guitar chords.

The paradox of comfort and derangement forms the musical and spiritual core that binds the songs on the new album, which is both spacey and immediate, both organic and disoriented. It is music that suggests, as the old hymn proclaims, “This world is not my home,” while celebrating a communion of misfits and malcontents.

The creative process utilized by Darden, the band’s songwriter, guitarist and vocalist, is unique, to say the least. Darden wrote the lyrics and music for many of the songs on A Heavy Heaven for Robby on the spot while Randy Seals, who produced the album and played drums, was setting up recording equipment. Then the songs were quickly rehearsed and recorded, mostly in two takes or fewer. Not to mention that Darden doesn’t write down lyrics. That approach should have produced a self-indulgent mess, but instead the album brims with incisive lyrical couplets and instantly memorable runs of reverb-laden guitar that display a thoroughly uncanny sense of melody.

“It felt pure to us,” Darden said in the green room at the Blind Tiger before Ameriglow’s set at its CD release party on Aug. 1. “It felt raw. We weren’t humiliated at all by anything lyrically or technically that we wanted to try. This time it was very direct.

“I think the theme comes back to being honest and letting it out,” he added. “It’s all spontaneous. One reason there’s a theme to it is [the songs are] all recorded during the same time of night. I think the theme was us being true to ourselves.”

The songs were built in the studio, albeit organically, and Darden felt a measure of trepidation about how they would translate in their maiden live performance at the release party.

“The music is manipulated manually,” he said. “A lot of people think it’s post-production. I love noise. I like to get sounds out of a guitar that you wouldn’t expect, but everything is done on the spot. It’s almost like welding, literally like taking trash and building something beautiful out of it.”

Following a supporting set by Totally Slow, Darden brought his band out on stage, including Seals on drums and backing vocals, Cathalyn Robs on bass, Elizabeth Grubbs on piano, Doug Pike on second guitar and Kelly Grubbs on backing vocals.

“I’m really nervous,” Darden confessed before the audience, “but this is gonna be fun.”

Darden and his band attacked the songs with confidence and relish, from the bracing drumbeat and vocal declaration of “Talkin’ to Lucy” forward. Seals, on drums and later for a spell on bass, seemed to have an almost intuitive sense of where Darden’s idiosyncratic vision was taking the songs. Robs held the center, listening intently and anchoring the songs in a groove that gave a long tether to Darden’s sonic explorations. Pike added pleasurable texture. Elizabeth Grubbs’ piano playing was spare and elegant, creating a comforting tonic to Darden’s eccentric riffage. Her sister, Kelly, making a angelic choir of one, added harmony vocals, and graced the audience with her beatific smile.

Ameriglow’s fans responded with rapturous appreciation, both to the new songs and the rollicking crowd favorite “Bella Moore” and country-tinged “Sleepwalking Backwards,” both from the band’s first album, Anti-Americana: Speaking to the Unconscious Mind of the Southwest.

While the older cuts were a pleasure to hear, the new songs are nothing short of compelling. With roots reaching back to the Band (think of the intensity of “Chest Fever” or a weirder strain of “The Weight”), the warped Americana on Heavy Heaven for Robby holds up to almost anything put out by My Morning Jacket or Ryan Adams in the past decade in both sincerity and innovation. Taken together, the collection shows flashes of contemporary pop antheming along the lines of Arcade Fire with “The Numbers Are Random,” delicious guitar crunch in the instrumental “While Licking Broken Pavement,” the kiss-off romanticism of “Conf***ulations” and the orchestral folk of “Blackout in the Backlot.”

The title track, a requiem for a close friend who passed away, started as a melody Darden worked out on the piano and became a sweet 42-second elegy on guitar.

But a sense of Darden’s relationship with his friend comes out most clearly in the magnificent lead track, “Dreams Pt. 1.”

“I’ve been working backwards fixing scenes,” Darden sings over a piece of guitar confection worthy of Lou Reed circa 1969. “I just wish Robby was here to see, but dreams don’t come true….”

Later in the song, Darden laments, “I just miss my best friend,” and the guitar suddenly lurches into a modulating tremolo as the drums go into double time like a palpitating heart. The lyric “Death is approaching at an alarming rate” follows as a repeated mantra.

“It’s my baby,” Darden said of the music. “The one thing I care about, I care about the music and my friends more than myself.”