Murder By Death: Red of Tooth and Claw

[20 May 2008]

By Evan Sawdey

PopMatters Interviews Editor

Well, this is a change of pace.

Murder by Death, America’s favorite incendiary cello-rock band, have gone about and made a few changes since 2006’s excellent In Bocca Al Lupo.  First off, there’s that whole record label thing.  Before, the band was releasing discs on great little imprints like Eyeball and Cooking Vinyl.  With Red of Tooth and Claw, the band has moved up to Vagrant Records, becoming label mates with the likes of the Alkaline Trio, Thrice, and (shudder) Dashboard Confessional.  Yet even with Vagrant’s reputation as an emo-rock label, they still have the guts to sign crazed pop acts like Eels and the New Amsterdams, making MBD’s switch seem more reasonable than you’d initially think.

Unfortunately, that’s just about the only reasonable move that’s made on this disc. 

Red of Tooth and Claw is a frustrating, occasionally maddening album.  That’s because there seems to be a sharp disconnect between Adam Turla’s lyrics and MBD’s music, something that has never happened to the band before.  Perhaps this is all because of the label switch, or even feeling a need to overcompensate for pianist Vincent Edwards’ exit in 2004, but whatever the reason is, Murder by Death have never sounded so unbelievably tame.  Yes, they still “rock” in the conventional sense, but the bar-rock boogie of opener “I’m Coming Home” feels half-hearted, lacking any sort of punch whatsoever.  Even the upright bass-led “Steal Away” sounds sedated, a fiery acoustic/cello number that would sound great live but is much too streamlined here.  Though the band does knock off one fantastic instrumental piece (“Theme [For Ennio Morricone]”), the rest of the tracks (particularly “Black Spot” and “Ball & Chain”) are unengaged rock tracks that feel like a shallow imitations of older, greater MBD songs.

For Murder by Death to turn in music that’s anything less than rousing would be frustrating enough. Red of Tooth and Claw, however, rubs salt in the wound by having these sub-par melodies support the best lyrics that Turla has ever written.  Though “I’m Comin’ Home” and “Ash” are simply passable, the rest of Red is rife with sharp, pointed character studies that are fully aware that the devil is in the details.  “My body bruises at your touch / My ankles bear these lovers’ scars” he croons on “Ball and Chain”, a simple yet effective portrait of co-dependence in a relationship.  At times, Turla’s couplets are absolutely stunning, as in this opening verse of “Steal Away”:

Well the bombs are ringin’ like bells at a wedding
And the whole sky fills with dust
We’ll get outta this town alive or in the ground
We’ll poke a hole through the clouds to break if we must

With that said, however, there is one track that successfully marries a hairpin stylistic turn with the album’s best verses, and that’ the closing epic “Spring Break 1899”.  Sounding like a murderer’s lament cast as a slow-dance prom theme, Turla’s sense of detail winds up giving the narrator a full-bodied feeling, coming off more as a character from a novel than a pop song story device:

The sun is comin’ up over the hill
Or maybe it’s not I can’t even tell
But there’s a warmth on my face that isn’t the blood
And my tears are turnin’ the snow into mud
And I can’t feel my left leg but I think it’s still there
Did I kill anybody? Hell, I never fight fair
What state am I in? Am I still on the run?
Has it really been so long since I’ve seen the sun?

Truly, the characters in Turla’s songs are alive, relatable, and utterly fascinating, all while showing his quantum-leap forward as a songwriter, praise that’s not meant to be taken lightly.  It’s just frustrating that his elegant prose is married to a Murder by Death sound that’s homogenized to the point of almost being lifeless.  Live, these songs will crackle and explode with energy.  On Red of Tooth and Claw, however, they’re painted with an air of disappointment, an adjective you’d never have thought you would have to use to describe Murder by Death (and, hopefully, one we’ll never have to use again).

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