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Country Death Songs

O'Death's Merry Jolt of Bleak Bastard Bluegrass

O'death, Where Is Thy Sting?

By Michael Byrne | Posted 1/28/2009

O'Death, the Woes and Ed Schrader

Zodiac, Jan. 29

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Young, city-bred bands will never get tired of nicking Americana. Sometimes it works, but not so often for being as shameless and aggressive as humanly possible about it as O'Death--its name taken, presumably, from the Southern folk traditional associated with Ralph Stanley and popularized via the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. The Brooklyn, N.Y., quintet originates from SUNY Purchase, the proximate New York university that also brought many of the Wham City folks together--which lumps the band in the broad category of New York hipsters trying to approximate rural Southern sounds. The only defense against that charge is being really good at it, of course.

To be precise, it is hybridization rather than approximation that O'Death is good at. It's like an indie-rock band clad in a skin of stitched-together folk and bluegrass. The result sounds like those two genres played really fast, for the most part, and nodding in several genre directions at once, particularly toward modern, expansive art/postrock and aggressively rhythmic postpunk. Credit the latter to the band's teeth rattling percussion, one of the first things that commands attention, and the one instrument in the band that keeps every other one in a highly kinetic state of trying to keep up/be loud enough. As songs crest and break, you hear the fiddle turn into an instrument producing a sound akin to a dying predator bird, while Greg Jamie's voice squeezes itself into an ultra-concentrated version of Frank Black. The sum of it all is breathless and very cool.

O'Death has three albums to its name as of last year, when the band released the striking, raucous Broken Hymns, Limbs and Skin. The band's most polished product, you can actually make out the lyrics. And, lyrically, it plays out like the movie Wisconsin Death Trip (Kemado), a "document" (based on a book of the same name) of a small post-Reconstruction rural community of immigrants that essentially implodes in violence--murders, suicides, asylums, etc. A lyrical sampling, from Hymns: "I plant the face in water/ I held her broken feet/ I taught the wave that caught her/ Now she is yours to keep," from "Low Tide"; "Hang the hardship baby, hang the hardship baby, hang the hardship baby/ we go to sleep and then we die," the chorus from "Grey Sun."

The band beats you over the head with this mood, but listening to O'Death's tragic onslaught isn't as emotionally brutal as it sounds. The band very matter-of-factly writes its death songs, in a way you imagine death was viewed in small, frozen, and God-fearing towns in late 1800s rural mid-America--"And the god who pushed me in has ripped away my earthly flesh/ Now I'm bound for his last judgment/ O my lord I must confess," for example.

Head Home, O'Death's 2006 sophomore album (re-released widely a year later), is raw. The recording is less sharp and you're not confronted with Jamie's lyrics in the same way, making it feel like a different group, a bit less of a concept band and more one honing its peculiar sound. Still, lyrics surface in O'Death's few slow numbers on Head Home, though, where Jamie sounds, severely, like Neil Young (save one song where he sounds uncannily like Tom Waits). You hear more rumination and less declaration. "Jesus look down on me/ and tell me my faults," he sings. And there's no shortage of God fearing on this one either--such as "Nathaniel," when he sings, "oh lord, lordy," over a wandering piano and big, widely spaced drum slams, "Nath-aniel/ dropped aaaaax handle/ to the ground/ he chopped your woman down," closing it out with "Sometimes a man/ throws out his hand/ for the devil's reach."

Like, say, Old Time Relijun, a band that understandably gets compared to O'Death, this music is idiosyncratic almost to a fault--it's its own hybrid genre and doesn't deviate much, and you kind of wish it would. At least part of the problem is Jamie's swampy voice--for better or worse, it's as distinct as Arrington De Dionyso (when it's not slipping into costume). Taken over several albums, the sound gets to be a bit much to take, so O'Death has a challenge in making a meaningful progression from here, lest it wind up forever in the "shtick band" bin. In the meantime, it's an enjoyable, bleak stomp.

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