I’ve been familiar with Murder by Death since it was originally called Little Joe Gould, playing in support of a small group of then-unknown youngsters in My Chemical Romance. Both bands had recently released records with New Jersey’s Eyeball Records, and I had been invited up by a friend to come and see them perform at the Loop Lounge in Passaic, New Jersey. At the time I was mostly excited about seeing My Chemical Romance (yes, I just unashamedly admitted my youthful transgressions), but it was Little Joe Gould that would end up affecting me the most.
Just like the band’s 2002 debut, Like the Exorcist, But With More Breakdancing, Murder by Death’s second full-length, Who Will Survive, And What Will Be Left of Them? (2003) further cemented Murder by Death’s esteemed place in my CD collection, alongside Sigur Rós, Godspeed You Black Emperor, and Mogwai. Like the Exorcist had a contagious, youthful energy, a pent-up nervous breakdown pouring out into every song, and Sarah Balliet’s cello playing added a deep sadness, a grace to the music that I would immerse myself in for days. Who Will Survive took the sorrow from songs such as “Holy Lord, Shawshank Redemption Is Such a Good Movie!” and the drive from “I’m Afraid of Who Is Afraid of Virginia Wolfe” and focused that energy into a western tragedy spilling out the story of the devil coming to the Midwest and the trail of destruction left in his wake.
It’s because of those two records, then, that In Bocca al Lupa is such a disappointment. The epic and wintry feeling of Who Will Survive has been completely lost in the production, the sound all pushed close together. Vocalist Adam Turla has abandoned the pained tones in his voice, and he now sings as if he’s doing a Johnny Cash impression. The apocalyptic importance of the music has been traded in for a saloon-style brashness — and it is painfully obvious in the quality of the songs.
As if portraying a parody of itself, incorporating every negative line from reviews of Who Will Survive, this new Murder by Death feels like a band trying to do what the real Murder by Death once did so effortlessly. Some parts of the record, such as the first seconds of “Dead Men and Sinners,” caused me to flat-out laugh; some songs, such as “Sometimes the Line Walks You,” caused me to turn the album off altogether. The musicianship shines through in a few moments, but even well-written disappointments are disappointments nonetheless.
***“Brother” MP3: http://www.murderbydeath.com/m3u/brother.m3u