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

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