Meet And Greet: Double Dagger

Baltimore officials call it the “Greatest City in America.”

Some residents think otherwise.

Plagued by cronyism, corruption and a social stratification that doesn’t seem to involve much of a middle class, the city’s reputation has been cemented for decades to come by the teeth-grinding HBO drama “The Wire.” Just last month, for example, the city’s mayor was convicted of embezzlement.

A huge swath of Baltimore’s population is very poor. “Poor” in a different sense is the city’s urban planning. Stray only a few blocks from the waterfront, and you’ll quickly encounter some of the vacant buildings that are peppered throughout Baltimore (some estimates have put the number of empty units as high as 40,000). You’ll also start to see police-surveillance equipment atop street lights, and dozens of “pharmacies” that double as liquor stores, thanks to a law passed about a decade ago.

“This could have been a really good city,” Double Dagger vocalist Nolen Strals told me late last summer.

So why live there? Well, it’s awfully cheap, for one thing. It’s not too far a cry from D.C. and even NYC. And the people there “are receptive to weird shit,” according to bassist Bruce Willen.

Yes, for all its faults, there are a lot of good citizens living in what the kids call B-More. Like many urban dwellers, they’re progressive, politically active – and very open-minded.

“There’s this atmosphere of openness in Baltimore that has really been key to the development of the band since the start,” drummer Denny Bowen said.

“It’s definitely a big part of the identity of the band,” Willen added.

Clearly, Double Dagger make no secret about their distinct Baltimore-ness. Featured on the cover of the record they put out last year, More (Thrill Jockey), is the truncated image of a 30-foot-high metal sign that reads “Baltimore” and is visible when you enter the city from the south.

Moreover, the Daggers three recorded the album – which made my list of best-of-’09 releases – at Baltimore’s own Current Gallery around this time last year. The band likely won’t forget that experience anytime soon: They documented their third full-length without heat, and right around the time they finished, some dude named Barack got nominated as president of these United States.

Two blocks from the gallery, “they had this big pre-inauguration rally … there were 30- or 40,000 people lined up to get into this plaza,” Willen recalled.

Strals chimed in: “We actually had to take a short break from recording the vocals, because the crowd, even though they were four or five stories below, they were loud enough that the recording was picking up in the microphone.”

Giving More a historical watermark of sorts, some of that background noise is captured on the record – albeit very, very faintly.

“If you worked at NASA, you could probably hear it,” Strals laughed.

Burying that fuzz is music that would’ve been perfect for a post-rock soundtrack to the movie “Taken.” Running at a brisk 39 minutes, the 10 songs – all guitar-free, mind you – are tense, minimalist and action-packed. Like a hand placed on a slowly heating stove, many of Double Dagger’s songs consist of sustained notes that increase in volume and intensity until they burst into flames. They’ve got Fugazi written all over them.

Busting fuses throughout Double Dagger’s hummable cacophony is Strals, whose endless supply of bitter resentment is channeled in the form of clever, biting lyrics. Some of the gems:

“I’m dying to take you on an expiration date.” (“No Allies”)

“You’re living in the middle of nowhere in a town called Exactly Right. It’s got a population of you and everyone sleeps well at night. … There’s a lie and there’s a truth, there’s something in between: that’s me and you.” (“The Lie/The Truth”)

“So you spent half your life trying to do everything in half the time, and by the time that you’re done your time is double and you’re just stuck again in that same old trouble.” (“Half-Life”)

With sentiments like those, you might be inclined to think Double Dagger are a wound-up bunch. But the guys sounded laid-back enough during our conversation. Their agenda is pretty loose too, given that they’re involved with a host of side projects. Strals and Willen also do a lot of graphic design – they have a company called Post Typography that’s well known in art circles and “pays the bills,” in Willen’s words.

Because of all those goings-on, Double Dagger “spend a good while developing” songs, Willen said. “We don’t tend to just crank stuff out. … We never feel rushed, like we have to put something out this week.”

With spring on the horizon, new Double Dagger material could be arriving soon, if the plans the guys sketched out are still on track.

“I think there’s plans to put out an EP in the spring sometime, but we haven’t really nailed that down yet,” Willen said last summer.

Whenever it does drop, the EP will consist of “a handful of all-new stuff,” Strals said.

So rest assured that Double Dagger will resume waging their war against mendacity soon enough. And rest assured that at least some residents of Baltimore and keeping it real.

Go here to check out Cougar’s installment of “Meet and Greet.”

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