Sunday, 4 March 2007

Album Review: In Bocca Al Lupo

With a name shared with a 1976 Eileen Brannan mystery spoof masterpiece, a singer who mimics Johnny Cash and an album loosely based on Dante's Inferno, Murder By Death are clearly prepared to rub shoulders with the very best.

In Bocca Al Lupo (an Italian phrase meaning `in the mouth of the wolf') is the third album from Murder By Death, following Like The Exorcist But More Breakdancing (which was released under the name Little Joe Gould) and their previous effort, Who Will Survive And What Will Be Left Of Them?

In Bocca Al Lupo trades some of the amazing instrumentals from their previous albums for more narrative and tighter songs. Having lost keyboardist Vincent Edwards since their last album, cellist Sarah Balliet fills the void by taking over the keys but also increasing the presence of the cello. Rather than taking away possibilities, being forced to choose between instruments allows Balliet to give each song more clarity and her deep cello is never more impressive than when coupled with the tango rhythms of One More Notch.

Whether the plucked strings, hand claps and acappella choruses on bass-drum driven Dynamite Mine, or the languorous vocal and implacable drums of Raw Deal, Murder By Death cannot be faulted for their ability; in Brother and Dead Men & Sinners, they have a pair of rollicking drinking songs the envy of any band. The single, Brother, is the band's most infectious moment to date, while Dead Men & Sinners is a vaudeville pirate polka, replete with chinking glass mugs, floor pounding and a chorus of drunken men doubling every word. Later, the all-acoustic Shiola breaks new ground for the band, but it's the only moment where Adam Turla's voice veers a little too closely to the Man in Black's.

Besides his Cash-aping vocals, Turla writes frightening and stirring lyrics that express the voices of his many characters. The Big Sleep follows a man who has been sentenced to death and, perhaps surprisingly, is the only song to overtly refer to The Divine Comedy as Turla moans, "the bailiff leads me back to my cell / like the river man ferrying me to hell". Cold-blooded murder is outlined on the wonderfully chilling Dynamite Mine, while Boy Decide is full of thrill and intrigue.

As the album ends with Turla insisting "there's still time to start again", it's worth remembering that it was the she-wolf in Inferno that forced Dante on his journey to hell, and so into hell Murder By Death have taken us, touching on themes of sin, transgression, punishment and, finally, redemption, and, along the way, with grit and spunk, wit and precocity, have matched their inspiration with an classic entirely of their own.

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