Murder By Death
On the surface, Murder By Death is a Bloomington, IN quintet with a wry, ominous name. But behind the geography and moniker is a band of meticulous and literary songwriters matched by a specific brand of brooding, anthem-riding balladry and orchestral indie rock.
Murder By Death's path began in the early 2000s as most Midwestern college-town groups do, by playing to small crowds at ratty venues and frenzied house parties. While many of their formative-year scene-mates failed to make it much further than campustown's borders, Murder By Death translated their anonymous beginnings into a 10+ year career founded on a bedrock of five full-length albums, tireless D.I.Y. touring and performing ethics, and, most importantly, a dedicated, cult-like fanbase.
Since the band began in 2001, their audience has blossomed due in part to extended tours alongside similarly hardworking musical kin such as Against Me!, Gaslight Anthem, Lucero, William Elliott Whitmore, Ha Ha Tonka, and others. Through more than 1,000 performances across the United States, Canada and Europe, Murder By Death has gained word-of-mouth devotees and support from the likes of media outlets like SPIN Magazine, who said of the band, "They brawl like Johnny Cash's cellmates or dreamily swoon like Nick [Cave], stomping saloon floorboards in 4/4 time as grand strings fade into high noon."
What resonates most with supporters is the band's energetic, unique, and altogether consistent sound and conceptualized vision. The personnel and ingredients of the group consist of Sarah Balliet's throaty cello melodies, singer/guitarist Adam Turla's booming baritone vocals and brawny guitar strumming, drummer Dagan Thogerson and bassist Matt Armstrong's locked-down, post-punk rhythm section interplay, and Scott Brackett's (formerly of Okkervil River and Shearwater) multi-instrumentalist bag of tricks (including piano, trumpet, accordion, mandolin, vocals, percussion). The overriding sound is an amalgamation of textures ranging from dark and desolate to upbeat and brightly melodic, all of it landing somewhere under the orchestrated indie rock umbrella.
The other mainstay signature element of Murder By Death's identity has been built by the overriding concepts behind each individual album. Every successive effort conjures up fresh imaginative and tactile worlds - whether it's the battle between the Devil and a small Western town (Who Will Survive and What Will Be Left of Them?, 2003), an arid land of death and redemption (In Bocca al Lupo, 2006), or just songs inspired by a retreat into the Tennessee mountains (Good Morning, Magpie, 2010).
On September 25, the band releases their newest full-length and Bloodshot Record's debut Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon. The album was written throughout 2011 in a basement in southern Indiana, and recorded in winter 2011 in Dallas, TX with producer-in-demand John Congleton (Explosions in the Sky, St Vincent, Black Mountain).
"I think at this point we're sort of beyond genre," says Nick 13 of his band Tiger Army and its new album V •••-.
It's an accurate statement.
While the 13 tracks comprising V •••- touch on all the exciting hallmarks of great rock ‘n' roll, there's a substance and detail on display here that's distinctly out of the ordinary. And considering Tiger Army's track record as one of the most vibrant and inspired groups to emerge from the California punk scene, a career high like this is no small thing.
"It was very important on this record for me to try to do something new to top myself," says Nick 13. "I think a lot of people become complacent after so many years of making music. And I guess that was one reason why I was away for a little while-because that's what needed to happen to maintain that passion and, hopefully, freshness."
The band's first album since 2007's Music From Regions Beyond, V •••- combines stellar production from Grammy winner Ted Hutt (Old Crow Medicine Show, The Gaslight Anthem, Dropkick Murphys) with impeccable playing via singer/guitarist Nick 13, bassist Dave Roe (Johnny Cash, Ray Lamontagne, Dan Auerbach) and drummer Mitch Marine (Dwight Yoakam).
With first track "Prisoner Of The Night" already released and well received by audiences at current live shows, the freshness Nick 13 speaks of could not be more evident. Tiger Army's music has always pushed forward creatively while nodding toward the roots of rock, but this time out, the band is drawing inspiration from the music of the early ‘60s-that pre-Beatles era when the likes of producer Joe Meek and the Shadows were in full bloom, or when a very young Del Shannon made his mark with his 1961 hit "Runaway." It is a musical period still ripe for rediscovery, and it masterfully evoked with full affection throughout V •••-.
"That whole era gets overlooked, I think," he says. "Because there's the narrative about the end of the ‘50s with Elvis going into the army, Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, and Ritchie Valens dying, Little Richard going to Gospel--that is all true, but the people who were able to carve out a niche for themselves before the British Invasion, and not just do the pure pop things, that to me was some of the most interesting music. And it was some of the most innovative as well. Because the first wave of rock 'n' roll was over, and everybody was trying to figure out what's going to happen next. And I think there was a lot more experimentation, sonically and otherwise, than that era is generally given credit for."
To that end, aficionados of early ‘60s pop might notice a few touches here and there: A familiar sounding keyboard tone via a rare Clavioline ("Max Crook, who played on Del Shannon's records, used it," says Nick. "It's also what Joe Meek used in England on ‘Telstar.' It took some doing to track one down in the States."), and a high-pitched, ghostly female background vocal throughout several songs, courtesy of operatically-trained vocalist Savitri Labensart ("I think she brought an incredible element to the record," He says. "Most female background singers that you find in rock 'n' roll today are usually R&B singers. That sort of high ethereal thing you hear on Joe Meek records and Roy Orbison records are a forgotten aspect of rock 'n' roll that I specifically wanted to bring back for this record.")
Those occasional nods to Joe Meek were greatly aided by producer Hutt, an Englishman who rose to the challenge of attempting to evoke that singular style. "Something that's interesting about Meek's studio techniques is, a lot of times you're just sort of unleashing something and you don't know what you're going to get. It's not something that necessarily produces a predictable result, it's more like you're sort of setting up the circumstance where anything can happen--it might be great, it might not, but when it works, it really works."
Also amply in evidence is the sound and influence of the legendary Roy Orbison, notably on "Happier Times," an album highlight. "It was probably Blue Velvet that turned me on to Roy Orbison," notes Nick. "David Lynch picked up on something-- there's a real emotional darkness to his music, and that was something I latched onto pretty early. So I was listening to that alongside punk as a young kid."
While V •••- is not a complete change of aesthetic direction for Tiger Army, it's a further refinement, an evolution perhaps partly wrought from Nick 13's other career as an alt-country/Americana artist. His self-titled solo album of 2011 won critical raves, expanded his audience via the touring that followed, and provided him some lessons for which he's still grateful.
"I learned a lot," he recalls. "In the solo thing, my intention was to immerse myself in country music of the ‘50s and ‘60s--but in doing so, I learned a lot more about not only how country music at that time was played, but how music of that time, not just country but rock 'n' roll, was played and recorded. And that was something that influenced this record most definitely."
Notably having an impact here yet again was Orbison, whose early ‘60s Monument Records singles rank among his best and most pioneering.
"Before I spent time in Nashville, I never really spent time thinking about Roy Orbison as a Nashville artist," says Nick. "I didn't realize that all of his albums were recorded there. And really, a lot of the elements that they were using on those early Monument singles--the sort of non-R&B female background vocals, things like harp or piano that help give it that sort of otherworldly sound, were pretty much the same thing they were doing on other country records of the time--just minus the pedal steel."
And there's more at the core of V •••- .
Among other things, says Nick 13, the influence of early New York City punk--starting with the New York Dolls, Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers, The Ramones and Static Age-era Misfits-can be felt.
"I think what it is about those particular artists is that there was a real connection to rock 'n' roll and pop singles of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s beneath the surface in their work. You hear it to varying extents," he says.
"And I wanted to almost strip away a little bit of the noise, and kind of play around with those ratios. You know, the urgency of punk at ground zero, and what influence it was taking from the original rock ‘n' roll. And just kind of tweak those ratios a little bit. Because that was something I always heard in there."
In all, V •••- reaffirms Tiger Army's status as a long-lived band that continues to grow, to get better with age, yet never without forgetting their roots or what brought them to the music. There is a consistency in all their music and the creativity that drives it-and though much has changed since the band's first recordings, much of what is most important has not. And it's all there to be heard on V •••-.
- Dave DiMartino