O’Death: Broken Hymns, Limbs and Skin

[24 February 2009]

By Chad Berndtson

O’Death is a hard sell as a studio band, if only because live, they’re a balls-to-the-wall force—well known for the fact its mash of styles, orbiting around apocalyptic, bluegrass-infused punk, makes a show feel as much like an exorcism as a concert. And that’s a compliment. Like Gogol Bordello, to whom O’Death is a little too frequently compared, the live experience is an assault. Also like Gogol Bordello—and refreshingly so—they’ve now demonstrated an ability to bottle some of that lightning and create a studio document worthy of its burgeoning legend. Despite some forgettable tracks, Broken Hymns, Limbs and Skin really pops.

Smart journalists try to keep certain distance from press materials when reviewing albums, but in this case, O’Death’s for Broken Hymns proves useful. Drummer David Rogers-Berry describes how after Head Home, the band’s 2006 album and second DIY release, was completed, O’Death had already burned itself out, and its members felt sick and overwhelmed.

It makes sense. Sometimes, its music is so raw it abandons melody and focus for the sake of bellowing vocals, bursts of violin shredding, frothy banjo and smashing drums. The songs lose clarity, however tenuous to begin with, and descend into twangy racket that begs to be called “unhinged” or “untethered” when the correct word is “messy”. The band has solved this problem with Broken Hymns, making them a stronger, less voluble and more effective band. Production-wise, O’Death sounds cleaner and more accomplished, and they’ve focused themselves on better and more varied material without sacrificing one iota of what makes them so potent. That’s a bravo by any estimation.

Frontman Greg Jamie’s been compared, at least vocally, to Frank Black or any number of manic howlers, but he reminds most of Les Claypool—the nasally phrasing, the twisted humor, the calmer passages shot through with abrupt descents into chaos.

In “Fire In Peshtigo”, the true story (the most deaths by fire in United States history) is a lot more terrifying than any band could make it. Jamie narrates some of the history as a ghost story, alternating longer, spilled-out phrases (“O how had it filled the night with broken empty song”) with the flitting counterpoint of, “Hold on,” building up intensity behind him and bringing things to an ominous gallop, coming to a false ending—“Hold on / Breathless air / Lake on fire / Land too”—and then letting the bottom drop out, turning up the volume, yelling at the top of his lungs as the drums crash and the violin spews long strands of minor-key terror. It categorizes as the finest song in O’Death’s arsenal because it’s relentless, frightening and utterly invigorating—the song you’d immediately point to knowing nothing else about O’Death and its live prowess and say: “I bet this one just kills in concert.”

And it does. And were it that there were more of those rough gems on Broken Hymns. Everything else on the album acquits itself with varying degrees of resonance, from the banjo-clarion call of “Lowtide” to the Pixies-ish “Vacant Moan” to the carnival atmosphere (wailing, scarcely intelligible lyrics atop a stomping tempo) of “Light That Does Not Dim.” O’Death does twangy thrash. O’Death does boozy waltzes. O’Death does whipcrack punk and junkyard-string blues. O’Death only occasionally does nuance. Do they “need” to? Absolutely not, and the best thing O’Death might do at this point in its career is not change a thing. Will they to create the masterpiece they’ve hopefully got in them? Yes.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/69758-odeath-broken-hymns-limbs-and-skin/