The story goes something like this: In November 1957, Ed Gein was arrested after the body of a Wisconsin store clerk was found in a shed on his property. When authorities moved their search to his house, they made a series of grisly discoveries involving Gein’s creative and sickeningly fashionable use of the human skin and torso. Over 15 year’s later, director Tobe Hooper released The Texas Chainsaw Massacre which borrowed details liberally from Gein’s own crimes. The movie immediately became a cult hit, spawning countless sequels, remakes and spin offs. However, for all the popularity and notoriety the film has gained, the film’s score was largely forgettable.
Like the best cult movies, its mythology is malleable, allowing fans to leave their own stamp on it. Enter husband and wife duo, Tim Kelley and Christa Meyer. Criminally overlooked, the duo’s gothic take on American song has been captured on two previous full lengths, Your Bloated Corpse Has Washed Ashore and See You In Hell. Originally, the duo was planning to re-record the soundtrack of another cult hit, The Wicker Man (which also happens to have a remake currently in the works), however they dropped it upon realizing they could add much more to the virtually nonexistent score of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The result is every bit as haunting and spine-tingling as you might expect.
While Puerto Muerto is no stranger to electric guitars, the songs here are largely acoustic and succeed because of it. Opener “Muerto County”, with its delicate interplay of guitar, banjo and violin is a windswept and chilling introduction. The band wisely puts the focus Meyer’s full and breathy vocals, choosing most of the time to avoid straight lyrics in favor of non-verbalised streams of vocals that are often dampened with reverb and multi-tracked for optimum effect. Take the aptly named “Ghostee”, whose ethereal voices swirl around a gritty and sparse, percussion driven vibe. “Walking” takes it a step further, using multiple vocal tracks to serve as the basis for the song as a lone guitar picks its way along with them. It only comes to a beautiful end as the guitar gives way to some crackling feedback as the voices seem to be gasping for their final breaths. With acoustic instruments, the band’s songs seem to be stronger for it, placing a greater emphasis on melody and making each note count.
But for a band that has always shared creative duties, both leading and accompanying, it’s unfortunate that the disc’s weakest moments belong to one person. The songs led by Kelley seem to be coming from an entirely different place than the rest of the record. The raucous and disorienting R&B stomper “What Have I Done” appears in the middle of the album and completely throws the listener out of the careful mood that the band had worked so hard to establish. Likewise, the southern rock infused “Road Song” is another mediocre genre exercise that simply doesn’t reach the level of transcendence that the group applies to its country and folk oriented material. And even on “Cherries”, which on a superficial level fits the mold of the rest of the disc, Kelley musically and vocally doesn’t seem to be up to the challenge. Thankfully, the rest of the disc is anchored and led by Meyer who seems to thrive with this kind of material.
Ultimately, the link to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is clever gimmick, but the fact that these songs stand up on their own is a compliment to the band. With The Songs of Muerto County, Puerto Muerto find a meeting place someplace between the spaghetti western work of Ennio Morricone and the field recordings of Alan Lomax. It’s place of finely tuned horror made achingly real by the desperate sincerity behind it.