Album review: Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon by Murder by Death

When I was a kid I’d sneak out of the house after my mother had fallen asleep. I’d walk my bicycle to the curb and ride all over creation with my best friend. Sometimes we were satisfied to circle the city’s chain of lakes and other nights we’d ride without a second thought for the ride home, ending up at Midway Park or lost in Lowertown.

I loved the lakes at night and the reflection of the moon on the water and the serenity of their unchanged character. These were, after all, the same paths my parents had surely walked me along when I rode in a stroller. There’s a tree on Lake Calhoun which is in a photograph of my brother and I as little boys. It’s bigger now.

And there is a bridge on Lake of the Isles off which we’d jump into the dark water below. Every summer I was terrifiedĀ  I’d hit the bottom and die, even though just a year earlier I’d made the same plunge safely. I guess we’d go home after that, but I don’t know. The only thing I remember clearly is the feeling of anxiety mixed with the need to feel that free fall. I remember my feet on the ledge like they belonged to someone else.

“Hush now creature, dry your eyes / I know a place where a body can hide,” sings Adam Turla on the new Murder by Death album, Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon, an album full of mysterious places and memories. Whether it’s a glimpse of a deer’s glassy eyes or an unknown grave under a tree, Bitter Drink brims with the untold and the unknown. The fleeting images we keep to ourselves (who would want to know, anyhow?) sit beside the secrets that burn our souls. Just a few tracks after lamenting the fate of a 20 year old woman buried under a tree, Turla ask “can I … redeem myself for everyone I’ve buried with these hands?” as though perpetrator and victim suffer the same wretched fate.

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(“Lost River”)

Reviews reliably compare Turla to Johnny Cash, following the lazy formula that drives most music journalism. Turla has not always sung in such a deep baritone, and Murder by Death has consistently built narrative arrangements much more complex than Cash’s one dimensional, faux-outlaw ballads.

Turla uses the range of his voice more like another gloomy singer, Richard Thompson. I thought of him first because it seems like the figures in Murder by Death’s drunken non-anthems might have sat at the same bar. Bitter Drink‘s boldest track, the funeral lament “I Came Around”, is what I always wished the songs on I Want to See the Bright Lights would sound like.

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(“I Came Around”)

Throughout the album seems more at home with England’s folk traditions than our own, with Turla as often driven by Sarah Balliet’s cello as by the rhythms of the New World. One you’re using an electric cello you’re moving outside of country music and into less American folk traditions, as we heard here in the Twin Cities last month on Swallows’ new album, Witching & Divining (our review is here). Cellist Aaron Kerr had this to say when I interviewed them about their roots for City Pages:

There’s a significant between English folk music and American folk music. It’s like the difference between listening to the Beach Boys and the Beatles. There’s a structural, compositional difference that’s hard to pinpoint. It’s like an accent. You can trace it back to renaissance classical music. There’s a different emphasis on beats, on phrasing and melodic structure that has survived.

Dark songs about death, guilt, fear or murder have a long tradition on both sides of the Atlantic, but American folk has always synthesized roots into an ever evolving tradition, comfortable exploring new sounds and harking back to 78s as old as, say Ernest V. Stoneman’s “Wreck of the Old 97″ or “Goodnight Irene”.

And Bitter Drink incorporates what are new sounds for the band – Murder by Death’s newest member, Scott Brackett, joined the band last year on the tour to support their breakthrough album Good Morning, Magpie. His contributions to the new album – on keyboards, accordion, cornet, theremin and mandolin – can’t be overstated. It’s his crashing keyboard that distinguishes “Hard World” from just any Tom Waits-ish lament about murder victims, and his accordion that takes us to the pub and back in “I Came Around.” Much of Bitter Drink‘s second side is as sparse as Murder by Death’s earlier sound, but even there Brackett’s presence contributes movingly to each track. One of my favorite tracks on the album is “Oh to be an Animal”, in which Brackett plays an electric keyboard that plods steadily along Balliet’s mournful cello.

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(“Oh to be an Animal”)

The bands’ musicianship is exceptional throughout, running the range from the bass-driven “Straight at the Sun” along the lines of traditional-rooted English rockers the Levellers to the slow, gothic arrangements that fill the second side with an atmospheric spookiness similar to the Cowboy Junkies in spirit if not in style.

Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon is distinguished as having been the subject of the third most successful Kickstarter campaign. The band raised over $180,000 from fans. Let’s set aside Kickstarter politics – I am not a fan of the site and would prefer if people stopped sending me links to their Kickstarter pages since I do not want an autographed copy of their album, nor the opportunity to have dinner with them. It’s remarkable that Murder by Death has such a devoted following – I think if they were ten years older – if they had begun their career at the same time as bands like the Levellers and the Cowboy Junkies – they wouldn’t have found the same success.

Murder by Death is surely a band at the right place at the right time, delivering with authenticity and confidence a new standard for alt-country, or gothic Americana, or whatever we’re going to let Rolling Stone and Spin call the genre this year. Each track has that mixed feeling of anxiety and excitement I remember from the bridge we’d jump off at night, and with each track there’s a compelling desire to plunge into the darkness below.

Murder by Death is playing Saturday and Sunday at First Avenue in support of the Hold Steady. Tickets are $25!

Murder by Death will also visit Hymie’s for an in-store performance on Sunday afternoon at 3pm, where you can also buy a copy of their new album, Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon, including a deluxe edition that comes with a trippy zoetrope and a Japanese lantern.

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