Bloomington, Indiana has been home to one of the more progressive, cinematic storytellers in music for over a decade. Murder By Death first kicked up Midwestern dust back as Little Joe Gould, quickly changing their name before the powder could settle on a debut EP’s jacket sleeve. “Como Panuelos Blancos de Adios” gave into the winds, opting for mature songs that were more narrative than centered on elaborate arrangements. Sarah Balliet’s cello was just barely noticeable at the time, muddled in the recording. Regardless of the downfalls of the studio, you could tell something was stirring. Like the Exorcist, but More Breakdancing‘s “I’m Afraid of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe” confirmed that, given a proper studio, Indiana held a golden nugget of indie rock and songwriting. Those who listened to “Holy Lord, Shawshank Redemption is Such a Good Movie” soon flipped into a flurry as Who Will Survive, and What Will Be Left of Them’s “The Devil in Mexico” let its mono introduction lay the framework for one of the most marked stories ever set to music; a western tale of the devil’s revenge upon a small, doomed village. “Until Moral Improves, the Beatings Will Continue” depicts this mature storytelling, way back in 2003.
The group got past the recording even further when Adam Turla’s voice plunged with a deepness with In Bocca al Lupo, a stunning move that didn’t seem natural until “Ash” off of Red of Tooth and Claw in 2008. It was one of the first moments that their sound ‘clicked’ with this recording; Sarah’s cello and Dagan Thogerson’s thundering drums filling that canyon out. However this year proved to be a pivotal moment in their career, eclipsing 2010’s Good Morning, Magpie handily. A Kickstarter campaign soon broke free of the reins, leading Murder by Death to the third highest-funded music project raising over $187,000 to the group’s surprise surrounding their latest release, Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon. (Kinda bummed no one took the Kentucky Bourbon Trail one.)
Tackle Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon as more as a series of vignettes, and it makes more sense than as their previous full lengths. Adam Turla took a short story approach rather than continue as David Debiak does with Sleep Station. “My Hill” tosses the sepia imagery out with lyrics dealing with parking lots and shopping mall, chronologically out there in contemporary time perhaps as opposed to tumbleweed tales by the fireside slogging whiskey. The longing remains, both in tone and in lyrics; “The weeds are gone and so is she. The rich folks choke on the billowing smoke and I found a new hill.” The time frame alone shakes up the album, leaving it hard to place, but it is soon followed by the brush snare rustle of “Lost River” soon after.
“Lost River” is a beautiful highlight, emphasizing John Congleton’s production (St. Vincent & David Byrne, Explosions in the Sky). The entire release was a challenge, recorded more traditionally rather than live. Nevertheless, you barely notice. The song is, self-admittedly a “creepy love song,” of a drowned lover calling for his companion to “come rest your head on the riverbed, drink from the river and find your way to me.” It’s touchingly poignant thanks to Sarah and Adam’s harmonized vocals, touched up by acoustic, cello and cornet.
John Congleton’s touches are subtle. “Straight at the Sun” toys with percussion and mandolin, some panned left or right, despite the early perception that it’s a rather rocking, simple track. It’s a little forgettable at first, but grows like many of the tracks. There’s something that hooks and roots you. “No Oath, No Spell” and “I Came Around” are cuts that show the despondency and rancor characteristic of traditional Murder By Death. The former flourishes over Sarah’s strings and newcomer Scott Brackett’s (Okkervil River-fame) piano. Sweeping, punchy. The latter mimics the quickness of “Brother” with an Irish flare so spare it enhances instead of detracts. The protagonist attending a funeral to be faced with reality, a homage to that idea that what only matters is what you do for others instead of what you think. The protagonist, singed with venom towards the deceased, reverses his opinion of “the thief” as “the room started reelin’ I got the feelin’ I read you wrong.”
As always, the best moments of Murder by Death lie in shaking the formula. That’s why “Ramblin'” and “The Curse of Elkhart” seem less memorable than the hollow, groaning “Ditch Lilly” with its thin, steel string echo or the dizzying psychedelically pensive instrumental “Queen Mab.” “Ghost Fields” rounds out the album much as any Murder by Death listener is accustomed to-a finale with an optimistic tone, this time brought to you by Scott’s cornet. All in all, Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon reads as you would expect. To this long term listener, the lack of an overarching plot or concept that shaped their discography beforehand makes it a tricky, more sporadic to digest-but nonetheless enjoyable. The addition of Scott fleshes out the Bloomington band’s sound phenomenally, and Congleton’s touch will ensure the ensuing music will have treasures hidden within.
It’s something best served on a crackling vinyl, certainly.