The Dead Science: Bird Bones in the Bughouse

[18 January 2005]

By Jill LaBrack

The Dead Science arrive to us from Washington, that state that has brought us such disparate acts as Mudhoney, Beat Happening, and Kenny G. Please allow the Dead Science to add their own brand of weirdness to the mix. A sort of post-rock, jazzy, indie guitar, darkly poetic band, the Dead Science lay upon us their second release, a five-song EP with a great title that delivers quite a bit. Bird Bones in the Bughouse is what you want to listen to when it feels as if the road behind you is on fire, but you don’t care, because the love of your life is up ahead and you can’t wait to get to her or him.

The core of the band is Sam Mickens on guitar and vocals, Jherek Bischoff on bass, and Korum Bischoff on drums. A myriad of other players join in, adding violin, viola, piano, saxophone, and trumpet. The music and lyrics will be discussed in a moment, but this review would be remiss if it did not mention the secret weapon of the Dead Science: Mickens’ voice. Sure, this EP would be very good with any standard rock vocalist (thanks to the above-par musicianship), but what we have here is an ethereal instrument. Even at a whisper, it is confidently strong without melodrama. Mostly, it sounds like the musical equivalent of watching a gazelle run.

Bird Bones in the Bughouse starts with “Ossuary”, a tune that chugs into your subconscious. The lyrics are bleak and precise: “Deliver to a world of pain / Mouth torn up and body thrown / By every car rolling down the street”. Informed as much by Al Green as the Grifters, “Ossuary” is a song that gets better and better on repeated listens. The flaw of this great song is in the ending. It fades out so abruptly that, on first listen, it sounds as if it’s a mistake. This is really a shame as the song is otherwise very propelling and strong. Perhaps the band could re-record it with a real ending for their 2005 full-length release.

“Gamma Knife” is intriguing in that it sounds like Tool if Craig Wedren was guest vocalist and Mary Timony (The Dirt of Luck-era) was orchestrating all of the music. The song adds layer upon layer of sound, the exploding ending coming complete with rolling piano. There can’t be enough said about the EP’s centerpiece, “Film Strip Collage”. The atmospheric moments of the Geraldine Fibbers come to mind, but this song meanders along fine without comparison, seemingly being born as you listen. “Cuz She’s Me” hints at a band more than familiar with Prince’s Around the World in a Day, his reactionary album to the massive success of Purple Rain. Horns screech about, and the band plays both funky and subdued, depending on the measure.

The EP ends with a cover of Terence Trent D’Arby’s “Sign Your Name”, a staple of the radio in 1987. The Dead Science drag the song out, accenting the rather lovely lyrics written by Mr. D’Arby. Their cover sighs along, horns blowing in and fading out so quickly that one wonders if she heard them at all. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric move on a collection that already displays an unflinching creation of mood seldom heard on early releases. Contemporary cover songs, 90% of which are dull at best and embarrassing at worst (two grand exceptions: Sonic Youth covering the Carpenters’ “Superstar” and Sarah Dougher doing the Eagles’ “Take It To the Limit”), should be eliminated from the studios and kept for the live shows, but the Dead Science do this perversely well. They make it their own.

What is most fascinating about this release is how well the band has swallowed a plethora of influences and spat them back out in a new and exciting form. 1960s soul music is a touchstone, but so is Sonic Youth and 1990s indie guitar rock bands. One can hear a bit of the great, moody recent recordings from Joe Henry and even a dusting of Alan Lomax’s southern USA field recordings in these songs. But unlike some artists, who don’t seem to be able to digest their passions and turn them into something unique, the Dead Science sound original even as you hear a reference to Prince or Blonde Redhead.

With Bird Bones in the Bughouse, the Dead Science have proven themselves as a band to watch. This is a smart, edgy, and frequently dense recording. The band takes disparate pieces and ideas and melds them into invigorating songs that never lose their center. Perhaps someone should forward this on to Sting, showing the superstar how to really mix jazz into rock songs, although that would be selling this band short. Sarcasm aside, the Dead Science swoop down from the northwest corner, purposefully twisting that musical landscape once again. Allow them to impress you.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/deadscience-barebones/