Kid Dakota Visit the Depression-itorium

It makes Ian Prince feel weird when Darren Jackson gets all, "We must channel the spirit of the ungulates—Kid Dakota must tell their stories, Ian."
Tony Nelson

A Winner's Shadow
Speakerphone Records

Mash Notes

"Kid Dakota really messed up when they named this disc," I thought to myself after a few listens to the local twosome's new release, A Winner's Shadow. "They ought to have called it Kid Dakota's Field Guide to Depression. Or maybe Kid Dakotavision: A Spectrum of Sadnesses. Or even Kid Dakota Feels Your Pain, Provided That It Falls into One of the Following Ten Categories."

Even if I initially had reservations about the name, I was impressed by the depth and variance of life's disappointments listed within its tracks. There are songs about the lonely, isolated feeling one gets from living in a big city ("New York System," "Of Age"). There's a song about what a bummer public transportation hubs can be ("Port Authority"). Ditties about the losing side of gambling addiction ("Long Odds") rub elbows with pop dirges about drug addiction ("Transfusion").

It's a pretty representative survey—I don't need to tell you that romantic disappointment isn't neglected—although there's nothing about the fatiguing weight of knowing your government is waterboarding detainees. However, followers of Kid Dakota will be able to point out that this album has been long promised and occasionally delayed, and its songs were penned long before our national horror turned to macabre curiosity and we started waterboarding ourselves for YouTube audiences.

As I work out the problem of the intense downer-ness of A Winner's Shadow, I consider the history of Kid Dakota songwriter Darren Jackson. The band is essentially his solo project, although drummer Ian Prince provides accompaniment. Jackson, 36, is also a principal in the Hopefuls, the slyly sunny power-pop group who were still called the Olympic Hopefuls when they won the City Pages Picked to Click poll by a landslide in '04. Why does one of his projects speak of life's sorrows, and the other its joys? What is the difference between Hopeful Jackson and hopeless Jackson?

Then it comes to me: Erik Appelwick.

Erik Appelwick, you see, was Jackson's partner in copyright crime, his co-songwriter in crafting the cheery, good-times vibe of the Hopefuls. (He's since left the band and is now part of Tapes 'N Tapes.) Appelwick's own solo project goes by the handle Vicious Vicious, and just last fall he released his latest, Parade. Parade was a playboy's scrapbook of good times and never-dialed phone numbers, a carefree tour of parties and panties. Appelwick always looks outward, and usually girl-ward. Jackson always seems to be looking inward, at the abyss of self-doubt and failure to connect inside of us. Could Appelwick have somehow stolen Jackson's happiness?

But just when I think I have the whole conspiracy, the whole pathway of art and composition and personal betrayals straight in my head, Jackson shows up in person and blows a sizable hole in my theory. Between talk of his enthusiasm for cross-country skiing and his anticipation of the upcoming Kid Dakota European tour, Jackson is clearly a man in full and complete possession of his own happiness. He assures me that Appelwick's swingin' bachelor shtick is just artistry—"He's not really like that." Jackson smiles a lot. He has his own studio—Tapes 'N Tapes recorded The Loon there—in the basement of the home in northeast Minneapolis where he lives with his wife. And actually, the songs on A Winner's Shadow are not halfway as somber as those on the previous Kid Dakota record, The West Is the Future.

"There were a lot of slow waltzes—I think we had three of them—and I listen to it now and I think, 'This is really challenging,'" he reflects with a wry smile.

As he explains his songwriting process, I realize that the tracks aren't at all snapshots of his moods—he doesn't sit down and translate his feelings into song in one desperate outpouring of emotion.

"I go for walks and type lyrics on my Blackberry, or call my wife's answering machine and sing into it," he says, explaining that songs get knocked together from scraps of bridges and choruses recorded and then abandoned for months or even years.

"Some songs, like 'Chutes & Ladders,' were written 10 years ago, with the chorus and outro written nine months ago. It's really impossible for me to sit down and write a whole song. I think I've done it once. I think it drove Appelwick crazy that I wrote like that."

So it's more like he adds a bit of texture here, a spot of spidery guitar there—working like a very joyful, fully engaged painter who just happens to have a palette rich with differing tones of gray.

KID DAKOTA performs a CD-release party with Ice Palace and Jeremy Messersmith on SATURDAY, MARCH 1, at the TURF CLUB; 651.647.0486.

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