The boy on the cover of Kid Dakota's So Pretty has a face only a thug could love. Scabs blotch his forehead and chin. His arm dangles in a sling. His features appear even more menacing in front of the tiny bags of dead insects he has taped to the walls behind him. This is Darren Jackson, local indie-rock darling.
"I broke my elbow and knocked out some teeth," Jackson explains about the photo, which was taken of him years ago, when he lived in Rhode Island and was using drugs. "I passed out on a road in the middle of rural Connecticut. I don't really remember what happened after that, except that I woke up in jail. My friends bailed me out three days later."
That night's frail survivor stares forebodingly from the cover of the ironically titled So Pretty, playing upon Jackson's trademark self-deprecation with subtle humor. The five songs that make up the EP--all of which Jackson recorded under the alias Kid Dakota--speak candidly of this downtrodden period in his life.
Slinking into a chair in a Dinkytown coffee shop, the 29-year-old Jackson now looks considerably less battered, although he still seems a bit wilted and bleary-eyed. It's understandable that he should be fatigued: Anxiously paging through a new date book, he runs down an exhausting list of upcoming gigs scheduled as Kid Dakota, as well as performances with John Hermanson's Alva Star (in which he plays guitar), and the pop quartet Camaro. This sudden surge onto the local music scene was bolstered by Kid Dakota's three releases, the most recent of which is the gorgeous, sprawling So Pretty (Negative Kid Records).
So Pretty riffs off Kid Dakota's moniker by detailing the barren landscapes of Jackson's native Bison, South Dakota. Rattling with slide guitar and keyboard, "Smokestack" eavesdrops upon Jackson's rough upbringing there, as he whispers, "I promise to quit if you promise to stay." The title track continues the shadowy tale of misguided youth, warning, "Niki, oh Niki, so young and so pretty/Your dad doesn't know what you are/Instead of a habit you should have a hobby/Like Barbie or bubblegum cards." The title track maintains a chilly mood with ice-tray-cracking percussion--courtesy of Christopher McGuire--and a waltz tempo that puts the album's glacial movement in step with Jackson's own gothic footing.
Jackson--a bookish grad-school dropout--admits to a penchant for Martin Heidegger, whose later discussions of poetry, as the German philosopher put it, "speak of a clearing, making a space where things can reveal themselves." Similarly, So Pretty calls for the listener to be patient as the complex narratives unfold.
Patience also proved to be an important factor while Jackson produced So Pretty with Alex Oana, who labored over mixes for several months. Both friends recorded the music at Jackson's home, allowing the spare quality of what Jackson calls "psychotic, kinda country weird stuff" to come through. Bands like Palace Music, Sebadoh, and Neutral Milk Hotel have all turned Jackson from a preference for classical and jazz styles toward So Pretty's basement aesthetic.
Describing the album's raw tone, Jackson jokes, "I realized you can play rock 'n' roll and still be interesting."
Jackson is currently working on a number of projects, including a Kid Dakota full-length album planned for a late-spring release. Meanwhile, when will this man with so many endeavors find time for leisure?
"Maybe when I'm older and I can't sing anymore and I've got arthritis and can't play," he shrugs. "[Right now] I just don't have any time, but I have a planner."
A man with a plan and a planner is capable of anything.