Musings on music, old, new, popular and obscure. Post punk, metal, hip-hop, funk, and rock in general. A music fan with a desire to lose boundaries on what should and should not be listened to writes about experience in music from a listener's perspective, hopefully unhindered by prior expectation.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

I've Got a Preacher's Mouth and Rock 'n' Roll Heart -- Okay, Mostly Rock and Roll, If We're Honest: The Murder City Devils

The principle purpose--so far as I can guess--of compilations and split releases is often lost on me. I avoid compilations as a general rule, as I find them difficult to follow, or so unrepresentative that they might lose me on an interesting artist by sampling too little and too wrong a part of their entire repertoire. Most splits, at least those I know of are singles with a song per band, one on each side of a 45 7" record. Sometimes, too, they are gimmicky ideas or peculiar thoughts, which are most interesting with bands already familiar to listeners. Mudhoney and Sonic Youth each played the other band's song on the "Touch Me, I'm Sick/Halloween" split. Braid covered the Naked Eyes' hit version of the Bacharach/David song "(There's) Always Something There to Remind Me" and Burning Airlines backed it with Echo & the Bunnymen's "Back of Love," so there was even disparity in use of existing songs as hooks. At the Drive-In did one in-character track and one peculiar pseudo-dub track, which fits their experience and tastes but not the band in general, when they did a split with Sunshine--so on and so forth.

So, I often excise the side by the band I'm already interested and let the other pass, in the interest of not writing them off over a weird experimental track. It's not always the case, as I'll go with it given the entire split for some reason, via legitimate MP3 or CD release (as I did when acquiring the Burning Airlines/Braid split). Once upon a time, I ended up with the MP3s for the split that leads me to today's entry:

That is the ultra-limited blue issue, though the less limited gold pressing out there. Interestingly, it violates the same "rules" I approach most splits with: they are both remixes by The Latch Brothers. At the Drive-In I knew and loved, which was the reason for snagging the tracks in the first place. Each is represented on the clear sleeve packaging: At the Drive-In's Vaya EP had that angled boombox on an orange field for its cover, and the skull and crossbones image was the Murder City Devils' emblem for a time. The Latch Brothers remixed ATDI's "Rascuache" (from Vaya, the apex of the band, for me), and MCD's "Press Gang." That track comes from the Murder City Devils' third long-player, In Name and Blood, and it's a doozy, even when tweaked by outsiders.

I've got a friend who came into this band by my suggestion, and on occasion lines from that song pass between us, without any prior discussion of how great that particular song is. Here it is for you to enjoy as well:

I picked that album up over a decade ago at a closing TransWorld store in the relatively small city of Oneonta, NY, managing to also acquire a few Smashing Pumpkins singles and other unusual titles. I'd advise exercising caution if one looks it up: the interior art is inventive and clever, but consists of some rather grimy (fake, but disturbingly well-faked) photos of the band murdered in various ways. Particularly gruesome is vocalist Spencer Moody's post-broken-bottle-fight photo.

It's appropriate though: the band started as a rough and tumble punk-ish band in Seattle, WA,¹ and Spencer's lyrics have a tendency to circle themes, ideas and characters with great regularity. If Electric Six talked about fire enough that it seemed appropriate to name an album that, then the Murder City Devils could easily have named albums after various alcoholic references, violence, loneliness, flawed machismo, self-loathing and the kind of romanticized-Hemingway-struck-through-with-failure associated with all of those collected. Oh, and rock and roll, whom they decided to thank on the inner sleeve of their second album.

Indeed, their second album (after a self-titled debut) was Empty Bottles, Broken Hearts, though the LP has that title on one side and Broken Bottles, Empty Hearts on the other (of both the label and the cover), with the same switch used on either spine for the CD release. That album opens with one of my favourite drum intros ever, and I seem to be one of many, as it's readily available live from amateur recordings on YouTube, but the power of the Coady Willis' drums and Jack Endino's production needs to be heard in that recorded version to be appreciated.

The cover is a leathery field with an open switchblade and the name of the band and album. The point is pretty clear--even if it's not in the frame (sorry). While In Name and Blood perfected their sound when they added Leslie Hardy as a dedicated organ player instead of bassist Dann Gallucci doubling up for the recording sessions, Empty Bottles, Broken Hearts has some absolute classic, archetypal tracks. "18 Wheels" is practically an unstated mission statement, with the lines:

I never wanted you to be a sailor's girl,
To be a trucker's wife, to be left behind
You should know, you should know that I'm thinking of you
Up and down I-5 more often than a serial killer

Like a smuggler, like a trucker
Drinking when I should be sleeping,
Sleeping when I should be waking up
Never hung over
Either wide awake or way too drunk
 The band likely agrees: the song's lyrics are the only ones on the inner sleeve of the LP, splattered in pink above the album credits without any formatting whatsoever, on a black band over the band's forearm tattoos, photographed next to each other. In Name and Blood is practically written into the slow-burn crescendo of closer "Every Shitty Thing." And, if their love of rock and roll was in doubt, especially the rumbling aggression of punk, Johnny Thunders is immortalized (a second time, I guess?) in a song named after him, described as "a man who died with a guitar in his hand." That's pretty damn rock and roll, and with a wonderfully deliberate romanticism. It isn't the only tribute on the album though, as "Left Hand Right Hand" makes clear with its opener:
It's a story of left and right hand
It's a story of love and hate
If that's not enough, perhaps the lead-in to the chorus will tip you off:
It's a world of night for Pearl and John
It's a world of night when your daddy's gone
When everyone around you is so weak
You had to be so strong
Still not enough? The chorus ought to do it.
In the night, in the night of the hunter
In the night, in the night²
I acquired Empty Bottles on that lovely grey vinyl late last year when I was hitting every record store I could find between my apartment and my parents' home a hundred and fifty miles away. It was a lovely find for the surprise of colour, but I found In Name and Blood--even if on plain ol' black vinyl--two years ago on Record Store Day, while out looking for a few goodies, including the Coheed and Cambria picture-disc 7" that was put out that day, which I did not find. I found In Name and Blood tucked into a tiny, upstairs shop near Ninth Street in Durham: Bull City Records. It wasn't a release for the day, and it was my final stop, too, but I wanted some vinyl to come with me, as otherwise what I had was The Mountain Goats' limited DVD of performances from The Life of the World to Come, which is nothing to sneeze at, but not the right thing for Record Store Day. I believe it was the owner Chaz who was ringing the handful of us cramped in up there, and he mentioned to me he was happy to see that album going out, as he was a big fan and loved it. I agreed readily, and said I was pleased to find it on vinyl. That store I can't say a lot about, though they've now moved out to Hillsborough Road, next to Locopops, because they are a deliberately esoteric sort of store, focused on indepenent bands under, around and near the umbrellas of punk and alternative, which I am out of my depth facing en masse.

I was surprised when I got home though--sure, it was plain vinyl, but it happened to have two bonus tracks! Originally, it was issued in Canada (!) with an extra track, "My Little Red Book"--bringing us back, somehow, to Bacharach. That isn't on this release, though. The bonus vinyl track, "Hybrid Moments," from the 2000 issue is present, and with the appropriate and relevant Free the West Memphis 3 compilation track: "She." Both are classic Danzig-era Misfits covers, and the pumped up dynamics and production clarity of MCD manage to infuse them with a different but very real kind of life.

Those aren't their only covers, of course: they also covered--oh-so-appropriately--the Kinks' "Alcohol" for the Kinks tribute album Give the People What They Want. They covered Neil Diamond on In Name and Blood with "I'll Come Running," probably confusing at least a few people. I had no idea it was a cover, as I don't always read liner notes, but found out some years ago. I took it in stride--Diamond may be a source of derision in many of the circles I run in, but I have enough taste for the saccharine and pop that the idea doesn't bother me at all.

Before they broke up, though, they put out one last major release: an EP called Thelema in 2001. The most interesting song is probably the one with strings (!) behind Spencer Moody's full-throated bellowing, the aptly-titled "364 Days," which is all about how lonely St. Nick must be, "at the North Pole/364 days spent all alone." Of course, it was originally issued three years earlier on the "Paper Bag Series" 7" b/w "Dead by Christmas." Both are, obviously, exceedingly cheery holiday anthems, and some of my favourites for this incongruity, with neither seemingly a deliberate attempt to counteract holiday spirit, so much as takes on the season that fit with the band's entire recorded output.

I suppose all of this brings me to the final point, which is why I decided to write this today.

I've had a few small orders trickling in through the mail the last few weeks, mostly closing out out of print deluxe edition collections before they become prohibitively expensive. Today, however, was the arrival of a new item:

 Indeed, they broke up ten years ago, but they reunited for a few shows over the years, then finally, recently, decided to begin recording new material. The first pressing (on pink vinyl) sold out quickly, long before I even knew it existed, but this is the second pressing, "marbled black and white" (grey, of course) that fits my existing vinyl, so I can't complain. It's a natural extension of the more experimental Thelema, with hints of guitarist Derek Fudesco's side-project Pretty Girls Make Graves, which was fronted by his then-girlfriend Andrea Zollo, during the years the Murder City Devils were broken up. To make things more complicated (and interesting to me), Andrea actually performed the backing vocals on "Boom Swagger Boom," from The Murder City Devils, and guested at their "last" concert to perform the same role. That entire show was released as Murder City Devils: R.I.P., though now Andrea's name was a draw, rather than a footnote.

Spencer was always an interesting frontman for a rough and tumble band, with pure rock in their veins. In all the years they were originally together, he could be seen with short curly hair and thick-rimmed black glasses, long before there were "hipsters" to identify with that look, appearing to be the least appropriate and most "nerdy" of the band. But put a microphone in front of him? Holy hell. Blood-curdling wails of passion, utterly believable slurring belligerence about alcohol and broken-hearted loneliness and bitter pessimism with authenticity to spare. Indeed, a hidden live video on the CD releases had him falling to the floor with the microphone literally in his mouth, so lost in it, he was. Now, he has a bit of a harrowed look, but enough weight to feel some relief that it's not a complete ravaging from drugs--but all masked in a nice, fluffy reddish beard that makes him seem like he was hiding in a cave in all this time, after the splinter group Dead Low Tide died almost immediately after they formed.

I was originally drawn in by the idea of Farfisa-tinged rock-and-roll, and have never been let down. To be fair, organs and keyboards in that vein are a huge weak point for me, so that has always been a factor. "Everyday I Rise" and "Ball Busters in the Peanut Gallery," the two new tracks, are not quite that old sound though, with Coady Willis still pounding the skins to great effect, but an overall slower tempo and a more cloudy sort of feel, but not a bad one at all. I'm looking forward to what the boys and girl (Leslie's exit ended the band, but she, too, returned for the reunion shows and recordings) do, as I've yet to get a full grip from a mere two songs, and I'm not sure how I could, as this is very much a new band, even if the members are the same and the spirit remains unchanged in large part.

See? Told you.
Not that this is one to regret at all.

¹Interestingly, my friend who got into the band is now living up there and I'm not sure he knows that's where they're from. Maybe so, though. Also, despite the sneers and eye-rolls of a person I ran across online once, their name is not, of course, a reference to Seattle. It's a reference to, well, the real "Murder City": New Orleans. That's my recollection, anyway--a lot of info and pictures were lost when they broke up in 2002. As a bonus for anyone down here, here's an image I saved those many years ago, of the band painted up for, I think, a Halloween show:
²If that doesn't do it, I doubt much will. If someone wants to do film history a solid and make me proud, feel free to comment below.

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