Murder by Death: Good Morning, Magpie

Artist: Murder by Death

Title: Good Morning, Magpie
Release date: April 6
Label: Vagrant

What would you expect a band called Murder by Death to sound like? I figured these guys were gonna be among the new breed of "punk" bands in which one dude sort of croons while another screams his lungs out. God, I hope that trend goes away soon.

Anyway, MBD sounds nothing like its band name would indicate. At their best, these guys (and woman) deliver Western Gothic storytelling, with tales of gutters and knives and whiskey, over a dusty mix of acoustic guitar- and cello-driven music.

It's actually a refreshing sound, when it works. Much of the credit for that goes out to the cello player. Obviously, there's not a lot of cello in rock 'n' roll -- for good reason. But here, it definitely fleshes out the sound and helps Murder by Death differentiate themselves.

A lot of the best songs on Good Morning, Magpie (the album's centerpiece "King of the Gutters, Prince of the Dogs") are reminiscent of Alejandro Escovedo, the great Texas singer-songwriter, or excellent Southern-rock band Drive By Truckers. When it doesn't work, the music falls flat or sounds completely silly, as on the Tom Waits rip-off "You Don't Miss Twice (When You're Shaving with a Knife").

The singer has one of the most interesting voices in indie rock. To me, he sounds a little like Waylon Jennings, but with less outlaw country and a little more book-learnin' in his voice. The vocals are slightly buried in the mix, making it sound like the singer is that guy in the Western movies who emerges from the shadows in the saloon corner to deliver some ominous news.  

The second half of the record really comes up short, but if you're fan of Escovedo or Drive By Truckers or alt-country, in general, it may be worth your while to download a song or two by Murder by Death.

Note: Murder by Death is scheduled to perform on Monday, April 12, at the Rhythm Room.

Best song: "King of the Gutters, Prince of the Dogs"
Rotation: Medium
Deja Vu: Waylon Jennings with a master's degree in English 
I'd rather listen to: Alejandro Escovedo's Bourbonitis Blues 
Grade: B-

"Nothing Not New" is a yearlong project in which New Times editorial operations manager Jay Bennett, a 40-year-old music fan and musician, will listen only to music released in 2010. Each Monday through Friday, he will listen to one new record (no best ofs, reissues, or concert recordings) and write about it. Why? Because in the words of his editor, Martin Cizmar, he suffers from "aesthetic atrophy," a wasting away of one's ability to embrace new and different music as one ages. Read more about this all-too-common ailment here.

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