"This is my happy song."
That was composer/singer Corey Dargel's intro to "Impression of Me," one of the 21 original songs he performed Wednesday night in St. Paul. (The program was repeated Thursday night.)
As for the rest? They could be described by various adjectives -- bitter, broken-hearted, witty, depressed, deadpan, conflicted, anxious, sardonic, self-pitying, clever, vulnerable, confessional -- but not "happy."
Dargel, Texas-born, Oberlin-educated and New York-addressed, delivered his "Song Cycles" in two parts. To start, he and violinist Todd Reynolds (using electronic looping) did a group of songs about breakups, revenge fantasies, clinical depression and the futility of prayer.
Plucked violin gave a skittery feel to "Your Discompassionate Arms," as Dargel addressed "an incorrigible flirt" whose "sociopathic charms" he nonetheless finds as irresistible as all those five-syllable words. Genuine closeness appears impossible, as the lover, perhaps named Michael, "will always be a stranger."
Clearly, Dargel doesn't subscribe to the Hallmark view of love. But wait, what about his sweet ode to a deceased grandfather, in which he displayed both nostalgia and naive optimism? "Whatever it was that killed you/Surely I can rebuild you."
Dargel rhymes with the cleverness of a Stephin Merritt, but with less humor than the Magnetic Fields singer and with more of an art-song musical palette.
In the second half, Dargel was joined by St. Paul-based new-music group Ensemble 61. Though the two had not previously played together, this seemingly odd partnering worked well. The six-piece ensemble (piano, cello, violin, flute, clarinet and drums) ably navigated Dargel's time and key shifts as he employed his skillful baritone in songs about hypochondria and mortality.
Dargel isn't afraid to be tuneful, but his compositions avoid anything that could be described as swing. Most of them end abruptly, as if a janitor had switched off the power. And if it's patter you want, seek elsewhere. Dargel, wearing sneakers, khaki pants and sportcoat, stared at the floor when he wasn't singing. Twice he said that his notes stipulated that it was time to "tell a joke" or "say something to the audience."
The evening was one of strange fascination. I sometimes felt uncomfortable, not always in a bad way. Dargel's lyrics come across as autobiographical and self-lacerating. With so many songs these days about Empowerment and Loving Yourself, Dargel stands out, as he sings about acne, halitosis, doctor's visits, pills and premonitions of his own early demise.
Claude Peck • 612-673-7977