29 March 2008

Read of Sooth and Flawed

Where Who Will Surive.. and What Will Be Left of Them? was a heartfelt and awesome descent into a mythical West where the Devil walked the earth, Murder by Death's new album, in which they try to repeat the success, takes the idea so far that it degenerates into silliness. Adam Turla's every line becomes some kind of cliché. Album opener "Comin' Home" establishes this tone. He's of course howlin' and the moon is of course shinin'. I love Johnny Cash as much as the next guy. I wrote my own little Johnny Cash inspired song in a similar strumming rhythm, featuring the refrain "Well I feel a wind a blowin' and I know it's going to take me home." The home I was referring, however, was that Undiscovered Country from which no traveler returns. His home is where he's going to arrive after his epic travels through the dust and the storms, where he'll return to his sweet Penelope and make sweet manly whiskey-fueled love (I thought the Aeneid was supposed to be the inspiration for this album--I found none of it here). He has gone so far into Johnny Cash worship that his voice either comes out successfully imitating the Johnny Cash register or goes too far and slides into sounding like Boris Karloff singing the "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch." The first three songs are terrible. The third song has potential. It is a first person character sketch of a destructive man. Like a bad freshmn composition essay, it provides no specifics. The line "I'll be the axe that clears the forest," is evocative, but he tells of no actual act of destruction. Turla needs to study his Cave for how to make a convincing mythic murderer as the narrator of a song (the entirety of Murder Ballads) and how to do a Johnny Cash tribute successfully ("Let the Bells Ring"). Whiskey is served for dinner, and I guess I'm supposed to be in worship of his manliness, but it just comes across as adolescent. By the time Turla sings of his legs being tired, all he could do was "get back on the road," the song comes across as a bad stand-up comedian's punchline.

"Baby it's been so long, even the roses' hips are turning me on" from "Fuego!" (not to be confused with Einstürzende Neubauten's "Fuerio!") escapes the main problem established by the first three tracks. It's a funny idea, and it is original, and it feels like it is coming from the singer's actual experience, not some idea he has from books and movies about the Epic West. Just as this song of desire, lust, and pining ends, the album takes a step backward into Spaghetti Western soundtrack territory. Fortunately, songs "A Second Opinion" and "Ash" also feel genuine and use the rumbling guitars, rolling drums, and raking cellos sound developed on the previous album to positive effect."A Second Opinion" finds Turla singing to someone he undoubtedly knows. "I watch you crumble into sand/If the right shows mercy I'll use the left hand," he sings, and here he evokes Western imagery to convey meaning and biblical tradition to deliver his judgment in a way that feels deep and real, not Hollywood set for Western movie. This song's string section, tempo, and personal infusion make it one of the stronger songs. In between these two good songs is the super-derivative "Steal Away." Consider the lines, "I know your mama and your papa they don't like me too much, there's a dark streak in my ways, You and me we'll stick together we're two birds of a feather, together to the end of the days, Tonight is the night for the moon in June it is so bright Steal away, steal away tonight". First of all, did he take that first line right out of Bruce Springsteen's "Rosalita?" It's one thing to be influenced by the Boss, it's another thing to just steal. Another song on the album is called "'52 Ford." Come on. Was he racing in the streets with that car? Last year, Arcade Fire wrote and performed one of the best Bruce Springsteen songs ever, "(Antichrist Television Blues)." But firstly, their song didn't use all of Bruce's trademark motifs and phrases, and secondly, they moved on to their own sound for the rest of the album. Springsteen put out his own album a few months after Neon Bible and it sucked. It didn't compare. It didn't compare to the power of that single Arcade Fire song. Conclusion: Way to go Win Butler. You beat Bruce at his own game. Murder by Death is caught in their influences like quicksand, ("going unner, unner" in the suck) right now. Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, and Ennio Morricone worship has taken them to a point of losing their own identity, which was powerfully realized on their last album. To return to the quoted passage, "We're two birds of a feather"? Really? Come on. The album is filled with lines that are tired beyond use such as this one. And why the June moon? Because it rhymes with moon or because it was Johnny Cash's wife's name?

As far as "'52 Ford" goes, it features, amidsts its forgetful homogenic arrangement, lines such as, "Her place was hot and it smelled of sin." Way to write cheesy pulp fiction pastiche lines. This song features post cards and matches on the dashboard, fivers in pockets and switchblades in boots. Great. What is the value of inhabiting and/or embodying a cliché fictional landscape? No real meaning or revelation is ever achieved in this landscape. Whereas Springsteen uses cars, girls, and drinking to explore the dark and secret side of people and make metaphors for their struggles, Murder by Death do it for the style of it, the flashiness of it. Pictures of the band show that they dress in costume as though they lived at the end of the nineteenth century. The problem with this band at this point in their career is that they are so captivated by the surface, visual idea of the fictional, mythical Western that they have lost an interior to most of their songs. One can just visualize the flaming red dice tattoos and the pin-up girl cards. It's all a glammer/glamour image with no deep resonance. There is no iceberg. There's only that ten percent floating on top of the water. The result? After 37 minutes of carving cellos, cliché imagery, rumbling guitars, and Bruce/Cash worship vocals, one feels cheap.

Therefore, it is important to notice the places where they transcend this trap they've made for themselves."Ash" is definitely a straight-forward Bruce Springsteen four-four rocker, but it is really good. Here, the imagery of the moon and the ash falling from the sky serve to create a captivating landscape that serves as the song's story. It is not as forthright as the other songs, and its mysteriousness serves it well. "Who could tell the dogs from the men? I see their faces and I know where they've been?" The singer sounds like he will be ash himself. He, and every member of the band, smolders and burns with intense singularity of purpose. "The Black Spot" aches sinuously with a vague regret and fatalistic depression. It burns like the end of the last cigarette of the day before heading back into a shit job with no future in sight or into the house for another inevitable fight with the partner or the parents. "Spring Break 1899" almost succumbs to the fate as much of the rest of the album, featuring lines such as "Am I still on the run? Has it really been so long since I've seen the sun?" and "God knows I'm not the first mistake she's made," it plays itself out pleasantly to the motif of an old arpeggio four-four fifties song and builds to a convincing cathartic end that will stay in your head, "Could it be you?" mournfully and yearningly sung over and over again. At the end, Adam Turla finally rises above the artifice and soars into the realm of sublimated melancholy and desire that constitutes so much great music.

To get there, the album owes a great debt to cellist Sarah Balliett, who plays sensuously and sensitively, swooning the songs to their deepest places and soaring them to their highest ones. She also adds just the right amount of organs swelling to add that religious feeling to songs in need of such a touch. She and Turla were both religious studies and anthropology majors; hopefully, we'll see more of that in future recordings. The other musical performance of note on Red of Tooth and Claw is Dagan Thogerson's energetic and varied drumming and percussive playing. He's new to the band on this, their fourth album, and he is the engine on which these songs are built, to use an apt car metaphor.

To compliment a couple of remarks made in this review, the band's biography on their website, adds two relevant pieces of information. My expectation that the band was Aeneid-related came from a friend's comment that the singer was talking about harpies being in the songs on the new album. Turla actually likens his fourth album to a "Homer's Odyssey of revenge, only without the honorable character at the center." It certainly lacks something at the center, but it might just be a character, period. Being a promotional tool, the bio for the new album is overwritten and extols virtues that simply aren't there on the record. Even with this marketing tone in tact, the writer comes across the problem of vagueness I alluded to throughout this review. "There's a sense of forward momentum throughout Red of Tooth and Claw that drives home the idea od moving inevitably closer toward...something."


A paid reviewer, writing a promotional piece, can find no better word than "something." It is not his fault but the fault of the music on this, the not forward but backward driven album of Murder by Death. Hopefully, the band will notice these problems and return to the strength they showed on their second album, as well as put to use all of the learning, literature, and critical thinking they acheived and developed in their undergraduate careers.

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