REVIEW: Murder By Death – Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon

Artist: Murder By Death
Album: Bitter Drink, Bitter Death
Genre: Americana, Punk, Alt. Country
Label: Bloodshot Records

I’m never been accused of being a man with nothing to say. Words tend to flow out of me, fluttering effortlessly toward my word count. Regardless however, it is very rare that I feel the need to pen a track by track review of any album. This is mostly because, in my humble opinion, today’s music has been whittled down and dwindled into a handful of singles buried in a collection of throwaway tracks. It is a rarity to find an album that remains listenable from the opening track to the encore. More often than not, it seems as though those days in music have gone the way of dinosaurs, 8-tracks and VHS.

Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon, the latest effort from Murder by Death, is an exception to that rule. In fact, the album waivers so far from the industry norm that one could easily confuse it with pieces of a better era. The combination of saloon door sounds and singer-songwriter storytelling leaves the entirety of the album in book form, flowing together in chapters with each note resembling a page in a Zane Grey novel. Somehow combining sounds that would make Alison Krauss, Johnny Cash and Dropkick Murphys proud, this mashup of Americana and Punk manages to make peace with both the Vagrant and Bloodshot Records generations.

“My Hill,” the album’s opening track, is a perfect example of this. With elements of Brand New’s “Tautou” and Johnny Cash’s “There Ain’t No Good Chain Gang” slamming into each other, Murder by Death’s album entry could easily find placement in intro credits of a John Wayne film. Setting up the scene, Adam Turla’s dark vocals depict the death of a country home due to urban sprawl. The story discusses the loss of the land to shopping marts and garbage heaps. As the simple, vocal based song bleeds into “Lost River,” the song’s intro seems to possess a clutter of aimless background piano-over-drums before correcting itself into a beautiful acoustic guitar and piano mix. Strings add to the hooks, building a flawless bridge for Turla’s vocals to meet with Sarah Balliet’s for the first time. The 4-minute song clears the way for the “Straight at the Sun,” the album’s first look at a Murder by Death punk number.

The band reconvenes in their country roots at “No Oath, No Spell.” Balliet’s cello runs the show in this song, balancing beauty and a bold awareness of belonging. Replacing the typical guitar effort, Balliet engages the listener’s ear with a softer, more drawn out sound blended with piano plucks to create a building progression that by itself makes the album worth spinning.

“I Came Around,” the album’s next track, taps into Turla’s inner-Springsteen. Easily possessing a sound that could fit (if rerecorded by The Boss) on Nebraska, Murder By Death presents their blue collar, working-class bar chatter. Think “Born To Run” in the 1890’s on a rundown player piano in the corner of a whorehouse saloon and you’ve got the jist. Flowing into “Hard World,” the album’s most polished track, the two-song set could easily have ended up on a Gaslight Anthem album. This potential single could rip the radio right open if placed in the right hands. Combining perfect hook construction and randomly slammed piano, the track manages to create enough chaos to counteract the studio production and still retain some street cred. Yet it is catchy enough to send the album straight to the charts.

“Ditch Lilly,” while a little redundant, brings the album back to where it started, with simple drums and guitar leading into a heavy country sound. This bleeds casually into “The Curse Of Elkhart,” a song in favor of a more Gogol Bordello sound. Followed by “Ramblin’” the album’s most country song, the band takes an album-arena-rock, fist-pumping approach to things at this point in the album. Both tracks are very driven, pushed forward by their string progression and angry drum riffs; sounds build like clouds before a strong wind, destined to break wide open.

This overcast feel shifts drastically at the instrumental “Queen Mab.” The beautiful intermission piece highlights the bands flawless use of strings and pianos, proving that instrumentation is just as important to the process of songwriting as the vocal elements. Not to be outdone however, “Go to the Light” and “Oh, to be an Animal” release a crooner aspect to the album, spotlighting the vocals in a way that would make Tom Waits rethink his position on soulful belting.

Fittingly, “Ghost Fields,” the album’s final track, sends the listener off the way the album came in; with good, backwoods grace. Strings and horns mesh with playful vocals in this town tavern sing-a-long. Taking a bow, the album will shove you off of your barstool and out to the streets, whistling its familiar tunes as you fumble for your keys and drunkenly call a cab to take you home. However there is no hangover to this album. Like your favorite dive it feels comfortable and addicting. Expect it to get multiple spins.

Score: 8/10
Review Written by: Joshua Hammond

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One Response to “REVIEW: Murder By Death – Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon”

  1. I have to say this is a really good review. Murder By Death understands and respects the boundaries of music genres while also doing their best to blur those same lines. The way they approach style is done by very few in the current music scene. Gaslight Anthem certainly has the same methods but restrict themselves to, what I think is, rock music, in its purest sense.

    They are as a musically succinct as a band can get, with each member showcasing their mastery in their instrument, especially Turla who has fine-tuned his voice over many records and has come out with a powerful sound that evokes a strikingly gothic tone, only intensified by their lyrical content.

    Murder By Death understands the notion of American Gothic and really create a space in the music world for music that is specifically “American Gothic.”

    Outside of their music, their live performances are so visceral that you can’t possibly forget them. The venues are small, and you get even more chills when Turla’s croons hit you, not through headphones.

    I had the pleasure of seeing them on the heels of “Who Will Survive” when they just played silent movies in the background during their set. It was unique and memorable and meshed far too well with the setting of that album. Combined with their touring mate and friend, William Elliot Whitmore, the entire concert exuded such iconic Americana.

    I later saw them again during their “Magpie” release tour, and they had fine-tuned their live presence to be exciting, fun and dominating of your attention.

    I didn’t think I would be drawn into an album so intensely as I was with “Red, Tooth and Claw,” which was my favorite, but “Bitter Drink” takes that same late 19th century atmosphere and propels it forward to an indescribable degree.