Mining the medieval for a modern sound: Dagmar plays the Yacht Club

Dagmar w. Controlxoxo, Dana T

Yacht Club — Thursday, June 11 at 9:30 p.m.

Indie music act Dagmar, based in Fairfield, Iowa, plays the Yacht Club this Thursday in support of their new album Afterlight, released just this past week.

Dagmar consists of Gemma Cohen and Miranda Mallard, and though both are quite capable with their instruments (Cohen on bass and Mallard on keyboard and guitar), it’s their arresting vocal performances which form the foundation of the duo’s music.

Their vocal harmonies and solos, often intimately foregrounded in their songs, are deeply affecting, and often quite sophisticated, drawing on methods from classical and medieval music. For instance, Cohen and Mallard open their song “What Do You Want” (video above) by using a vocal technique based in medieval choral music known as “hocketing” where the same melody alternates between two voices.

“With our old group, Rock Paper Scissors, we actually did a whole classical concert using medieval harmonies,” said Mallard, going on to note that she and Cohen found their interest in medieval music while studying music at the University of Iowa and participating in choir groups. “We have a big appreciation for it. We just love the sound of it.”

Instrumentally, Dagmar’s ventures into indie classical territory. Many of the group’s songs are grounded in repetitive musical arrangements and Mallard herself notes the conscious influence of Philip Glass on their songwriting.

The ways these arrangements juxtapose against the rawness of Dagmar’s vocal performances, and the plaintive lyrics they typically articulate, give their music a fascinating emotional texture. The repetition of notes coupled with the driving rhythms of the percussion (played on the album by Jack Lion’s Justin LeDuc), can often feel both hypnotic and ascendant, giving the listener the sense that they’re floating above everything being sung about, observing a person’s pain and the beauty of how they carry it. There is something quite impressive about being able to write songs that can feel at once both wholly ethereal and like a punch to the gut.

Dagmar are joined for their performance at the Yacht Club by LeDuc on drums and Dana Telsrow (Dana T) on guitar, both of whom feature prominently on Afterlight. Telsrow will also perform a solo set featuring his unique medley of folk, funk and charismatic exuberance. Also on the bill is Controlxoxo, a fellow band from Fairfield, Iowa, who perform enthralling goth(ish) synthpop that beautifully marries the danceability of ’80s new wave with the punk ethos of destroying everything.

Dagmar play the Arbor earlier this year in Fairfield, IA. -- photo by Paul Delisle
Dagmar plays the Arbor earlier this year in Fairfield, IA. — photo by Paul Delisle