There are many highs and lows to being a podcaster. This week is a low with drama a foot on a podcast that is hosted by people I consider good friends. I considered not writing an article for awhile, I just didn’t feel up for it. Then I came to realize that things need to keep moving on. If your not informed, I suggest you cruise over to the Podge Cast and give their latest episode a listen. I comment on it in the latest episode of Bear Swarm! as well and that’s really more of the proper place for that. This article is suppose to be about music but sometimes the real world steps in and drops something on you that you just can’t ignore. I’ve rambled enough, without further ado lets get into the Justice Files.
Ready for my big secret? I started writing this article in hopes that people would read it and send me music recommendations. With the Ghoultown article, it worked! Rich Flynn, aka lachlain made a couple suggestions to me via Twitter. I’ve only had time to listen to one of them, Murder by Death, and while I have listened to their entire discography I’d like to take time to focus on In Bocca Al Lupo. In Bocca al Lupo is Murder by Death’s third full-length album, and while not being their most recent I think its one of their best. After the break I’ll do my usual and talk about the band a bit before getting into the album from both the band’s perspective and my own. Enjoy.
Do you like Johnny Cash? Murder by Death is not what Johnny Cash was but what he could have been if he was more rock\punk and a little less country. I don’t just mean that Murder by Death sounds like Johnny Cash musically but that the lead singer, Adam Turla, sound hauntingly like Cash in some songs. Don’t believe me, go give Shiola a listen to. Go now. This article will still be here in four minutes and thirteen seconds. I’ll even be nice and give you a paragraph break to go out on.
Formed in 2000 in Bloomington, Indiana, Murder by Death is comprised of an unusual arrangement of a guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, and a cello. That last one gives them a very haunting sound of some tracks and really helps to set them apart from other similar bands. A group decided on the name Murder By Death, which they felt better represented the “Americana noir and dramatic post-punk” of their sound… whatever that means. Before you ask, their name is derived from the 1976 Robert Moore film of the same name. The band jumps between a more punk rock and alt-country with such expertise one wonders why we don’t see more bands like this. In earlier releases they used keyboard and electric cello to create a southern American, gothic sound, later releases focused more on guitar-driven punk rock and western influences. They commonly use themes to tie albums together into a concept album. For example, themes such as zombies, whiskey and the Devil are presented in the the band’s second album Who Will Survive, and What Will Be Left of Them? which describes a story in which the Devil wages war against a small village in Mexico.
The title In Bocca al Lupo comes from the Italian phrase that literally translates to “Into the Mouth of the Wolf” and is commonly used to say “Good luck”. The album is a concept album, which essentially means the songs are all connected by themes, in this case, sin and punishment. Over on their website Adam Turla, guitarist and lead singer, talked a bit about some of the tracks and the meanings behind them. Before I get into my thoughts and opinions on the tracks lets here what Adam had to say about the album as a whole.
While the last record is one long story, the new record is 12 different stories, all about sin, redemption, and guilt. Think of them like short stories in one anthology, each about a different character who has either committed acts that have harmed other people or are part of a bigger story where something like that has happened. There were several books that were influential in writing this album- some of them were Dante’s inferno, Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, and Edgar Allen Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher. Basically all these stories had issues that seemed relevant to the record and helped the creation of these songs.
Of the twelve tracks on the album there are only comments on the first five of them on their website. Each track tells a different story and most of them are fairly easy to interpret. The album opens up with a track titled Boy, Decide. Its the story of a younger man who’s a bit of a shiftless layabout and an older character is telling him to just live. It isn’t so much WHAT you live for but more about the fact that you do something, anything, with your life. On their site Adam comments that “The older character is telling him to choose something, anything to define who they are- choose life, choose death, choose women, booze, choose being a good person, choose being evil. Just don’t pretend you’re decent and go around fucking things up for everyone else. So the older wiser man pushes the kid to choose a life of any kind. Kind of a weird subject for a big loud rock song with a guitar solo, but hey, i never did like to do things the easy way.” Overall, the track is a great way to start and album. It starts loud and quickly establishes the group’s sound.
One More Notch starts with a riff that reminded me of the There Will Be Blood soundtrack. To go back to the Adam well again we’ll see that he talks about this track being “inspired by the 2nd circle of hell in Dante’s inferno. It is about a love affair that shouldnt exist, and how the characters are hiding their relationship from the public, but in the end they should not be together and they are dealed out a pretty serious punishment.” He then goes on to talk directly about the narrative, “They are dancing in a ballroom and a whirlwind begins to sweep them off the floor- at first it seems romantic and magical but then they begin to spin out of control and at the peak of the dance they burst into flames. The thing is, they are so greedy and self absorbed, they don’t realize the other is on fire so they frantically try to save themselves while their ‘lover’ burns. Ahh sweet horrible terrifying justice.” For a sound of the track, it has a more abrasive sound to it. The song is clearly harsh and frantic but, like any really good story song, the instruments help to enforce the tale.
Dead men and Sinners sounds more like a sea shanty then a country song, but that could be because of the subject matter. Adam says that, “The idea is that this ship is wrecked and nine men escape to an island. (i sang in 9 different voices for this song to make it more authentic). Basically what happens is that the bohemoth of a captain is leading this doomed ship, and his crew decides to mutiny. They toss him into the ocean in the midst of a storm but then the nine traitors get into a storm and wreck upon a beach where they live out their last days waiting for death to come and take them.” That sounds like a pretty standard nautical song to me. The really interesting part of this song is the music. Adam’s commentary talks about how the music was pretty improvisational, with them banging on doors and bottles to make the sound more authentic. It really works too. The song is fantastic and really captures a doomed crew mentality.
Track four is titled Brother and it resonated with me personally. Its a story about two brothers, one that gets in trouble and the other who respects his brother’s choice in life. The chorus sings out “I know there’s better brothers but you’re the only one that’s mine” and if that doesn’t capture the entire song I don’t know what else to tell you. I have a brother of my own and the events of this song sounds almost exactly like what happened to us. When the brothers in the song get together its like all is forgotten. They get along, joke and laugh. Then something happens, one brother gets in trouble and disappears. The song talks about it being fourteen years since they last saw each other. For me, it was only six but that doesn’t rob the song of any power. Just like in the song, my brother showed back up to apologize for all the shit he pulled and I didn’t even hesitate. All was forgiven on the spot. Family is such a powerful relationship and sometimes I’m surprised by how deeply it can effect you. If you have siblings I think you owe it to yourself to give Brother a listen.
If Brother is my favorite track on the album for personal reasons then Dynamite Mine is my favorite for the story. This is the last track that Adam left comments on so lets look at those first. “Dynamite Mine is a story of irony. its about a man who commits a murder in a mine where we works. He takes the victim there, kills him, and then buries him in the mine. Then, in a lovely twist of irony the murderer is killed under a rockfall that buries him next to his victim.” Musically the song is fairly simple but that only lends an incredibly spooky quality to it. I’ve commented on how haunting some of their songs are and this is a prime example.
That is the end of Adam’s commentary on the album so from here on out its just the Rob interpretation. The next track, Organ Grinder, sounds like its namesake. Its a very 19th Century street organ feeling. The story talks about a couple who go out partying and a girl who falls into prostitution. The lyrics are at times intentionally contradictory to both other lyrics and the sound. Talking about dressing nicely then stealing cars. Putting on a show and a fake front and being beaten behind closed doors. The song is very much about the lies we tell each other everyday.
Remember the Johnny Cash comparison? Well, with a song titled Sometimes the Line Walks You its hard not to make it. The song is pretty damned straight forward. The tale starts with a convict talking about his past indiscretions and he doesn’t sound very apologetic about it. At the end they arrange a jailbreak and are trying to get home to their women. Musically its sort of punk-country hybrid and it works surprisingly well.
The album makes a very abrupt change with Raw Deal going softer and more somber then the previous tracks. This marks the end of the fast and loud part of the album, from here out its soft and somber. Raw Deal isn’t a bad song, but the transition from Sometimes the Line to this is pretty rough. Its a song about the guilt of those who subjugate others. Its very sorrowful with a slow beat until a solo where the track moves faster but doesn’t get any less morose. Raw Deal is one of my least favorite tracks but it does transition into the next songs very well.
Another softer song, the Big Sleep, is a more introspective story then the rest of the tracks. A man lost is court case and is sentenced to death. The lyrics are his final thoughts about his family, his life, and everything. Unlike the character in Somtimes the Line, this narrator is far more apologetic. The story reminds me of The Mercy Seat by Nick Cave but I guess since both are deathrow songs it shouldn’t be to surprising. There are a couple lines that the lead singer really pours out and, with the music, you almost feel sorry for the narrator despite the fact he isn’t a terribly good person.
Hopefully you followed my earlier link and have heard Shiola for yourself by now. I’ve just gotta say it again though. Holy hell does he sound like Cash in this song. When I first heard it I actually had to check to see if they didn’t just put a Cash song on their album. The song is incredibly sad, its about a man who lost his family and is wondering how he can continue living alone. The song is sad enough but if you listen closely at the end you can hear the creaking of wood, a sound that very much conjures up the image of someone who hung themselves. For the slow parts of this album, Shiola is easily one of my favorites. I know, I have a bunch of favorite songs on this album.
Steam Rising is the new theme song for one of my RPG characters, thats how much I like it. This song doesn’t have a central narrator like most of the others do, but is instead a story about a place. In one interview the lead singer said it was inspired by The Fall of the House of Usher and the general theme of inevitability and abandon do resonate here. The reference to steam and coal in the song reminds me of the story of Centralia, PA. In 1962 a mine fire started underneath the town and drove the residents out. Whatever the origin, Steam Rising is another one of their fantastic haunting tracks.
From up to now its all been about evil people and punishments but when we get to The Devil Drives we see the album take a more hopeful outlook. This song ends the album with a pretty positive message about redemption and second chances. The last line on the entire album is “There’s still time to start again” and its sung over and over first starting out very somber before building up into an almost revivalist chorus. The Devil Drives lets you walk away from the album with a bit of hope for the world and its what this concept really needs to not be totally overbearing.
I like the entire album and think its their best work so far. They have put out another album since In Bocca al Lupo but I just didn’t think it was as strong. Murder by Death represents what I wanted from starting this column, new music for me to enjoy. Thanks again Rich, hopefully I can get to your other suggestion soon.