If you read any of those ubiquitous music blogs, you’ve probably already heard O’Death described as a group of college grads who duplicate dirty Appalachian jug band music. The band has been playing gigs around New York (via SUNY Purchase) for the past few years and have created some buzz with their banjos, beards, fiddles, and lack of T-shirts. You can call me a cynic, but I tend to get a bit skeptical when a bunch of dudes get on stage for a good ol’ hootenannie hoe down—in Brooklyn. It’s not that BK hasn’t seen its share of transplant musicians who deal in country, delta blues, and a host of other throwback musical genres (Williamsburg’s Pete’s Candy Store is just one venue which hosts these musicians daily). Most of these acts ooze sincerity and exhibit an adequate dose of talent, but the O’Death approach seems a bit contrived. They seem to embody the jug band farce of suburban kids dressing as 19th Century beet farmers. (Perhaps a good example of this is how their manic live shows sometimes feature a cover of the Pixies’ “Nimrod’s Son”—the circular nature is laughably ironic.)
O’Death’s live shows do display something of a carnival atmosphere; their rambunctious attitude and makeshift instruments contribute to a degree of exuberance and originality. And lead singer/guitarist Greg Jamie has been described as having a Tom Waits-like croak. However, with Waits references thrown around with any warbly-voiced singer, I’d be more apt to describe Jamie as an aged Kermit the Frog, playing a rusty banjo and singing “Songs About Rainbows” through a bourbon-and-tabacco-stained larynx. His voice is truly grating, completing O’Death’s assumed Mountain Man mystique. Back-up vocalist Gabe Darling provides a deep baritone to harmonize with Jamie’s shrieking yowls, but its simply not enough to temper Jamie’s abrasive vocals.
Bob Pycior’s fiddle and Gabe Darling’s banjo drive most of these songs, such as “Adelita”, which is punctuated by a rollicking drumbeat at the song’s end, and the happy-go-lucky hoedown “All the World”. Croaky Jamie attempts some melancholia on the banjo lament “Travelin’ Man”—“Although I’m just a travelin’ man / Got nobody left to call me friend”. The song works well as a tear-jerker, and O’Death should try this approach more often, as its sincere lines serve as believable fodder among a wealth of questionable material. “Rickety Fence Teeth” shows off O’Death’s jug band inclinations as a host of makeshift instruments are used in place of percussion—in this case Tom Waits would be proud. Jangly chains, cans, and bucket bass provide the backdrop for Jamie’s distant squeals and a sloppily plucked banjo. “Allie Mae Reynolds” is an absolute hootananie stomp, complete with tin can percussion. The band returns to sincerity with “Jesus Look Down”, this time leaning towards folk as the abrasive singer pleads for Jesus to “Look down on me / Tell me my faults”. You didn’t think we’d get through this album without a religious reference, did you?
All in all, O’Death’s Head Home is certainly enjoyable, and their live shows are definitely a riot. But I can’t help thinking the band is not much more than a novelty act—trust-funders posing as mountain moles. In an interview with Gothamist, O’Death drummer David Rogers-Berry spoke about gentrification in Brooklyn: “I could talk shit about gentrification, but I’m not from NY. I’m also a white college graduate, so I’d just be another hypocrite if i pretended I’m not contributing to gentrification.” I tend to disagree. One would think a bunch of dirty white dudes who look like they crawled out of a mining shaft in 1915 would be more likely to bring the property value down rather than contribute to its increase. But, then again, maybe they dress differently for their day jobs.
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