O’Death is definitely part of the new folk music movement, but they take a very different tack than most. Where many bands try to recreate the sound of guitar-based roots music, O’Death tries to recreate the feel of it. The songs on Outside are not anything like Mumford and Sons, nor are they like Iron and Wine. These songs sound like sea shanties (“Ourselves”), dirges (“Look at the Sun”) and other vaguely sinister tunes (“Black Dress,” “Ghost Head”).
To that end, these don’t have as developed a pop sentiment as the new folksters do. O’Death isn’t trying to make pop songs that appropriate a new idiom; they’re trying to inhabit an old idiom, quirks and all. Some lyrics a have a distinctly morbid Appalachian tinge to them (this band is called O’Death, after all). Banjo, violin, cello and non-standard percussion (claps, stomps, clicking things, etc.) play a much larger part in the sound than the usual suspects (guitar, bass, drums).That’s not to say those parts aren’t there, but O’Death doesn’t kowtow to modern sensibilities just because they’re modern sensibilities.
Another element that calls up the feel of a folk album is the reliance on group vocals. There are few moments of lead vocalist grandeur; the vocals are easy to sing along to, if not especially catchy at first blow. Theatrics are eschewed in favor of mood, and it’s a good tradeoff.
This album is like Southeast Engine’s Canary, in that it doesn’t just reward multiple listens: It requires them. This sound falls outside my consciousness, and I bet it will fall out of yours as well. It took me a few listens to understand and assimilate their modus operandi into my brain, and only then did I start to enjoy it for the fascinating album it is. I would like to see them live; I have a feeling that their intense control of mood would make for absolutely riveting gigs.
Outside isn’t for everyone, as it’s not a standard pop/folk album. But if you’re into thoughtful songwriting (or, on the other hand, sea shanties), O’Death’s latest album should be on your list of “to buy.”
History has produced two of the most enigmatic and intriguing albums I’ve heard in a while. Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor used the Civil War as a catalyst for current cultural analysis, while Southeast Engine‘s Canary calls up the Great Depression to give a grounding to its Appalachian folk tunes.
The most immediate track here is “1933 (The Great Depression),” which shares more than just a historical bent with the art-damaged punk band from New Jersey. The jangling saloon piano that underpins Titus rings true in “1933,” giving an fire and urgency that is matched by the roaring guitar, which has a similar fuzzed-out tone to their punk brothers. The difference lies in the drums (not punk), the organ, and the vocals. The vocals are sung in a weary tone ratcheting up to indignation, where the opposite is true of Titus Andronicus.
In short, you can slap “1933 (The Great Depression)” right after “A More Perfect Union” as a great segue into a Josh Ritter tune, and people are gonna think you’re a genius.
But let me dispel any notions that this is the folk Titus Andronicus (although, for real, I’d take that moniker). This is a straight-up Appalachian folk band in many places, which is powerful. It’s bands like these that make me sad when the term folk is bandied about so liberally these days (even by me, I must admit).
The forlorn acoustic guitar beauty of “Mountain Child” sounds like it was ripped out of a forest on the side of some Adirondack peak. The vocal melody is haunting and genuine (at least, as genuine as modern folk gets, but that’s a whole other discussion). The flourishes (violin, sparing piano, background ooo’s) make the tune even more pristine.
The subtlety-eschewing “Adeline of the Appalachian Mountains” features a banjo prominently in its rustic mix, and the addition makes the tune. “Red Lake Shore” has a more urgent feel, but the modern songwriting idea still allows the song to fall firmly within the Appalachian folk tunes surrounding it.
Canary is the sort of album that you have to explore. You can’t just hear it once and know it. The mind-blowing “1933 (The Great Depression)” will reveal immediate payoff, but the rest of the album has to be put on and broken in like a good coat or a pair of work boots. This is an album that, much like its Appalachian forebears, is about being rather than getting there. The tunes have to sit with you and sink in for best appreciation. Imagine you had only dozens of songs at your disposal instead of millions; wouldn’t you get to know those tunes well? Yes. Do the same for Canary. It will reward you.