Murder by Death's gothic country sound is defined by the their group dynamic, not their generous helping of spaghetti-western tropes. Sarah Balliet's cello proves as rugged and volatile as singer Adam Turla's mournful baritone. While the Indiana band's 12-year career has had its ups and downs, the musicians shift deftly between punk-like fury and eerie quiet.
The 2006 album In Bocca al Lupo has a lot going for it, including the swinging detonations of now-former drummer Alex Schrodt. Former Jawbox leader J. Robbins produced the record with the austere touch Murder by Death's sound demands. The harshness peaks on "Brother," which is both a nihilistic drinking song and a ribald celebration of the gray areas in which Turla's characters revel. Like Bruce Springsteen's "Highway Patrolman," this song has a narrator whose brother keeps getting in trouble and ultimately has to put family ahead of the law. "I know there's better brothers, but you're the only one that's mine," Turla concludes.
"Good Morning, Magpie"
Murder by Death haven't devolved into a psychobilly cliché, in part because some of their songs look for strength and heroics in unlikely places. The title track of 2010's Good Morning, Magpie pays tribute to a frail, lonesome figure enduring in a harsh landscape. Even as "the sky is filling with flocks and swarms," with the cello setting a gorgeous, foreboding tone, Turla assures the song's "little bird" that it'll be okay.
"I Came Around"
There may not be a better framing device for a Murder by Death song than a funeral. Strange, then, that this track from 2012's Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon should use the occasion to reconcile with a corpse. The narrator of this song crashes a shady character's funeral, only to have his mind changed about the deceased: "I thought your life was nothing more than one long grift/Now I sit weeping by your coffin, clutching a bottle in my fist."