24 August 2010

Catching up with Stars and Murder by Death

So the other night I posted some videos, which included one by Murder by Death; I scratched my head because I could have sworn that I reviewed them, when in fact I had never found the time. So I looked through my digital collection and CDs and found another band that I never found the time to sit down and write about…. So I cleared my calendar completely. It was time to write about Stars and Murder by Death, two bands entering veteran status (both releasing music for close to a decade), they have never compromised on exactly what they envision for their music. Both have songwriting chops, both could easily write a piece of frilly, bubblegum pop, but have definitely decided to go another direction.

Stars: “The Five Ghosts” (above)

Murder by Death: “Good Morning, Magpie” (below)

Stars: “The Five Ghosts”

Canadian veterans Stars released their fifth album, “The Five Ghosts” (22 June 2010), and offer up another album full of sentimental warmth and ingenious hooks. This is a band whose prolific body of work is astounding. All of the members of the band are also part of baroque/dream pop band Broken Social Scene, while one member enjoys an acting career and another a solo career. This time around, though Vagrant Records will handle the international distribution of the album, within Canada their own label, Soft Revolution, will handle distribution. There was a time I wondered why musicians would want to start their own label, and it eventually dawned upon me why: creative control. Especially in North America, where record companies are eating up other companies, and the business/number side of music has become more important than the artistry, musicians have little choice but to preserve their creativity by creating new channels for release. And this has definitely helped Stars compose and record an incredible album.

This is not a “big” album full of virtuoso moments – that would defeat the purpose of writing music of breaking up and heartache. Furthermore, though we could correctly call this an indie release (as it is on their own independent label), the album wallows through a few genres: pop, dream pop, post-punk, electropop, and shoegaze. The music itself is highly dramatic, conveying everything from urgency to confusion, listlessness to nervousness. Another great aspect of the album is the vocals. I love how the female and male vocal arrangements work with and off of each other.

There are many intriguing songs on offer, including “Wasted Daylight”: “Heat is a heavy head, keeps me in my bed; push aside the pillow, the whole room just turned yellow. Three in the afternoon, we still haven’t moved; sirens sighs echo, a pulse through our window…” and then the beat drops. As “poppy” as a song can get before it is no longer “shoegazey,” the song is urgent with an undertow of nervousness. But the most infectious song on the album is “I Died So I Could Haunt You.” You would think with a title like that you are going to get a dreary gloom fest, but it is actually as upbeat as can you get. My favorite song on the album, “We Don’t Want Your Body,” is pretty much crass and upfront in its discontent: “I sigh and frown and start to cough, your hunger starts to turn me off.” The music is mysterious at times, with its electropop effects, but the bass and guitar arrangements in the chorus are so itchy, you want to move, dance… The most sentimental song is the ambient “The Last Song Ever Written.” Of course, there is a twist in the sentimentality: “This is the last song that was ever written; after this nothing will rhyme. This is the last time that you’ll ever see us; after this, you’re gonna go blind.”

It is becoming rarer and rarer when bands have released multiple albums and can still hold my attention. Stars is one of those bands, and “The Five Ghosts” is one of those sentimental albums that may border on cutesy, but packs visceral power and universal emotionality that is infectious and hooks you. This is solid craftsmanship that should not be passed over!

Track Listing:
1. Dead Hearts
2. Wasted Daylight
3. I Died So I Could Haunt You
4. Fixed
5. We Don’t Want Your Body
6. He Dreams He’s Awake
7. Changes
8. The Passenger
9. The Last Song Ever Written
10. How Much More
11. Winter Bones

Keep up with Stars at their homepage, MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter.

Here is their video for “Fixed” from their YouTube Channel: StarsMontreal.

Murder by Death: “Good Morning, Magpie”

Taking their name from the comedy of the same name, Murder by Death hails from Bloomington, Indiana USA. Releasing their fifth album, “Good Morning, Magpie” (6 April 2010, also available on vinyl!), they bring a bit of country, folk, and post-punk to indie rock. Unlike the previous album, there is no consistent theme or narrative, but there is a sense of urgency and isolation. As the story goes, the album was conceived and (started to be) composed when Adam Turla went in the Appalachia for two weeks, living disconnected from the rest of the world. The final product: dark, introspective, and broody.

Opening with “Kentucky Bourbon,” you get a definite idea where the album is going: “There are many choices in this life that we don’t get to make; like who’s your pa, where you from, and when the leaves are down it’s time to rake.” One of the few choices you do have is to drink Kentucky bourbon (and though I am a vodka man, as long as you are going to drink whiskey, Kentucky bourbon is the way to go). This short track goes immediately into “As Long As There Is Whiskey in the World.” A modern day drinking song fit to be sung at a pub (one of my goals to get a few friends to sing this one really loud at a bar), the song goes through being down, having loved, and even higher powers, but ultimately, Turla sings, “I don’t want to be saved, as long as there is whiskey in the world.” The drinking theme is left behind for “On the Dark Streets Below,” a song about prostitution, two prostitutes to be exact. There is Annie who “makes a kind of music of the buttons popping off her dress,” and Adelle who “guessed… she could find a job in management… but now her talent’s spend on other people's dough.” And even though there is a slight admonition to the song, there is the ultimate reality that these women live with: “These folks got nowhere left to go.” It is a harsh reality that is never spoken of, and two thumbs up to Murder by Death for taking on the issue with tongue-in-cheek and a horn filled, sometimes sensually arranged, song.

My favorite track on the album is “Piece By Piece,” a sort of advice-filled song to someone younger. Full of universal axioms – “You’re walking ‘round free and in chains the next day; time has a way of breaking you down, piece by piece from your tooth to your claw” – resident cellist, Sarah Balliet, has the most gut wrenching, heart tugging arrangements on the album right here. Sure, you could easily say that in other songs the arrangements are more luscious or even more intricate, but they do not pack the visceral punch as they do here. Another favorite is a song about the mundane: shaving! “You Don’t Miss Twice (When You’re Shavin’ With a Knife)” may very well be a story of Turla’s stay in the wilderness… when he “thought I’d try my hand at the barber’s trade.” Of course, he ends up cutting himself with his knife while shaving… and starts the fussing and the cussing. The music is playfully dark, as it is played as tightly as you would imagine a novice actually holding a knife in shaving. And don’t forget the narrative “White Noise”: the broodiest song on the album, for all of its contemplation, it is the most sensual song on the album.

Murder by Death’s “Good Morning, Magpie” is a study in contradictions. Slumped in many old (some classic) genres, despite the musical references, it is fresh, urgent, and relevant. Dark and seedy at times, the album is quite often mundane and universal. Though the tracks shift from one theme to another with relative ease and dexterity, the style of music produces a visceral effect that unifies them… and again, this one is an album. Though each song is strong on its own, this is an entire experience, beginning to end, that is going to impress you.

Track Listing:
1. Kentucky Bourbon
2. As Long As There Is Whiskey In The World
3. On The Dark Streets Below
4. King Of The Gutters, Prince Of The Dogs
5. Piece By Piece
6. Good Morning, Magpie
7. You Don’t Miss Twice (When You’re Shavin’ With A Knife)
8. Yes
9. Foxglove
10. White Noise
11. The Day

Keep up with Murder by Death at their homepage, MySpace, and Facebook.

Here are their videos for “As Long As There Is Whiskey In The World” and “White Noise” from the vagrantrecords YouTube Channel.

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