Thursday, April 22, 2010

Itch- An Illusion of Grandeur From a One Trick Pony

    As the music industry becomes further decentralized (blame it on illegal file-sharing, unfair pricing, record companies or economic depression, the result is the same), power has shifted from A & R to artists themselves, and from press releases to fan buzz. But every change comes with its consequences: for every godawful group of hacks who would have been shoved down the throats of listeners a decade ago, we’re left with a lot of promising raw talent that’s too small to get picked up, even by niche reviewers and the blogosphere at large. Case in point: Itch, a Leeds quartet who linger somewhere between the harrowing lo-fi tundra of Modest Mouse circa-This is a Long Drive For Someone With Nothing to Think About and sloppy schizophrenia of pre-Ugly Organ Cursive.

    However, to pigeonhole them as such would be a grave discredit. Their sonic canvas is dotted with math-rock, the chaotic elements of early screamo and the occasionally danceable passage (see: “Tom Dick and Harry”), only made cohesive by singer/guitarist Mike Milner’s commanding voice. All at once, their music is daring, passionate and well-crafted, but unlike the math-rock scene they are arguably part of, they don’t feel the need to beat their listeners over the head with any of it. Their most recent release, An Illusion of Grandeur from a One Trick Pony, is a heady and personal 11-track journey, the last leg of which, “Never in a Million Years”, will silence any naysayer, and cement a love of this perfect late-night record. That is, if the initial one-two punch of “Big Clever” and “Here Comes the Cavalry” don’t set up roost in the replay section of your brain first.

    But of course it’s never that simple. As in the not-far-gone days of old, some bands just slip through the cracks, and groups like Itch show the limits of the blogosphere (their most daunting enemy may yet be the search engine). Despite the fast and free trade of information and opinions it offers, net buzz still can’t outmatch a caring fanbase with their boots on the ground. Considering the quality of this record (their third) and their tenure (they formed in 1998), it’s tough not to feel that the boys from Leeds were given the short end of the stick. Digital downloads of the album can be found on (£7), and a physical release is available on Tip Toe Records (£8).

An Illusion of Grandeur from a One Trick Pony

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Murder be Death- Good Morning, Magpie

    Of all the possible adjectives - cinematic, brooding, gothic- that have been thrown at Bloomington, Indiana quartet Murder by Death “optimistic” had never been one of them. At least that was true until the release of their most recent full-length, Good Morning Magpie. It’s as though the band stepped out of the alt-country nightmare that had been plaguing since 2000 and realized that life wasn’t so bad. Not only is the tone dramatically shifted, but Magpie does not follow a narrative structure, instead focusing around a few recurring themes such as being down and out, looking at the bright side of being down and out and swilling whiskey.

    Album opener “Kentucky Bourbon” introduces the listener to both Murder by Death’s capacity to make a beautiful piece of music and their love of liquor. The following track, “As Long as there is Whiskey in the World” will immediately confuse longtime listeners with its beery-eyed and Quixotic chorus: “as long as there is whiskey in the world/we can drink away the heartache we can drink away the girls/who we long to love but will never touch.” Where Adam Turla’s gruff howl on past records would spin these words into a tale of alcoholism, revenge or depression, the new decade has softened his delivery and his outlook, and Turla and his cast of lyrical noir personas seem content in their situations.

    Contrary to popular critical belief, “changed” and “got worse” don’t always serve the same function in reviewing, and Murder by Death prove this beyond a shadow of a doubt. The dramatic (and probably fan-reducing) change in tone with Magpie feels neither artificial nor uncalled for. As all bands age, they grow- some become bloated and outlive their relevance. Murder by Death instead seem only leaner and more honed with each record, and album highlights “Foxglove”, “On the Dark Streets Below” and “King of the Gutters, Prince of the Dogs”, are all the evidence needed.

    That being said, nailing down the songwriting process usually results in better musicians, but not necessarily a better record. Magpie is still dwarfed by their massive 2003 release Who Will Survive and What Will be Left of Them. Even if Magpie were a much less tolerable record, its refusal to follow the blueprint of ten years worth of material makes it praiseworthy. It represents an important and risky step for a band on the doorstep of popular consciousness.

Good Morning, Magpie