Murder By Death has been consistently one of my favorite bands since my good friend Amanda Clifford introduced me to them back in 2003. Their sound has changed a little over the last 13 years. Hell, listen to their first album Like The Exorcist With More Breakdancing (2000) and then 2008's Red of Tooth and Claw and you'd take some convincing it's the same singer. But it is. Frontman Adam Turla just has that much range.
It's tricky to pigeon hole them into a genre. Not that I'd want to. But the best way to describe them is “Johnny Cash composing the soundtrack for a gothic horror spaghetti western.” Gothabilly? Some songs are hauntingly beautiful (“Intergalactic Menopause,” “Lost River”) while others could be the background music for a bar fight (“Comin' Home”, “Brother” which features a bar fight in the video) Turla's baritone is such a dead ringer for Cash it's nigh on unsettling. I've played “Shiola” from In Bocca Al Lupo (2006) for people and had them convinced it was an unreleased Johnny Cash song. It's not just Turla's vocals. The song structure and lyrical style are unquestionably a nod to The Man in Black.
A central element to the MBD sound other than Turla's voice and hollow body guitar is the mind and heart shaking cello courtesy of Sarah Balliet. It ties the whole thing together and brings a gothy element to the alt-country/rockabilly core and makes it something truly unique. It's mesmerizing to watch her play live. Seriously, if I die I want to come back as Sarah Balliet's cello.
Murder By Death has a few concept albums under their belts. Their sophomore release Who Will Survive, and What will Be Left of Them? (taking its name from the tag-line for Texas Chainsaw Massacre) tells the tale of the Devil unleashing his vengeful wrath on a small town in Mexico after being shot in a bar fight. He lights the desert on fire, turns children into zombies, and lets loose his minions upon the townsfolk who try to rally to fight him off. In Bocca Al Lupo is a sort of modern day Dante’s Inferno and consists of multiple stories about the sinners in the various circles of Hell. Sticking with the ancient literature theme, Red of Tooth and Claw is a retelling of The Odyssey. Only the protagonist is a vile son of a bitch journeying home from his nasty, evil business.
The band self-produced and funded their most recent album Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon through Kickstarter, a fundraising website that lets the person or group offer incentives to donators in the form of increasing awesome prizes based on the amount donated. If you donated a certain amount of money you could submit a request for them to cover a song of your choosing and record it. It took them a while to obtain the rights, learn them and record them. But the result of this labor of love finally launched last week. As You Wish: The Kickstarter Covers features 15 tracks from a wide variety of artists ranging from Elliot Smith to Motorhead. From Kenny Rogers and The First Edition to The Misfits. There’s two schools of thoughts on cover versions. There’s the “Spot On School” and the “Reworked to the Band’s Unique Style School.” As You Wish is the latter. Which I tend to prefer. Spot on ones are better reserved for cover bands, as opposed to bands with over a decade’s worth of original material and an established unique sound. The variety here is wild. Other than the ones mentioned before Louis Armstrong, Murder City Devils, INXS and even more get the MBD treatment here. They even somehow manage to make Elliot Smith’s wrist-cutting “Needle in the Hay” more dark and depressing. While the Murder City Devils really emphasize the organ on “Rum to Whiskey” Murder by Death replaces it with their signature cello. Turla’s smooth, deep baritone is so starkly different from Spencer Moody’s raspy, swaggering growl it’s a bit striking at first, but great nonetheless. And being about whiskey, it’s far from outside Murder by Death’s wheelhouse (whiskey and devils are kind of reoccurring themes). Armstrong’s beloved “What a Wonderful World” sounds like musings from a death bed and should put a lump in even the most guarded of throats. It’s a bandcamp exclusive. So rush over to http://murderbydeath.bandcamp.com/ and drop the $10. It’s really a helluva deal for 15 tracks.
After over a decade on the scene playing small to mid-level venues (and numerous street festivals) they’ve never quite found mainstream success (I guess gothic-rockabilly-Americana just isn’t what the kids are listening to these days). But they’ve developed a dedicated fan base, of which I am a happy ass member. As well as a reputation of being one of the friendliest bands to tour with. And as Adam Turla said at the Do Division Fest in Chicago (June 1012) they’ve finally reached a point where they can make a living just playing music. It’s not a rockstar life style. But it’s enough to be living the dream.
Check out www.murderbydeath.com now. Thank me later.