Monday, February 28, 2011

Murder By Death @ the Vault in Bay City

Murder By Death
American Roots & Close Encounters

Murder By Death is an American Band in every sense of the word. Their music is an amalgam of country western, jazz, blues, vaudeville and rock & roll. Not content to present as a typical 4 piece, the band uses cello to fill in the parts that were typically reserved for mandolins and fiddles. They are now touring in support of their new CD Good Morning, Magpie, an undeclared American masterpiece that you may not find in the chain stores. Believe me, it is worth an online search. I was able to talk with Adam Turla, the leader of the band as lead singer and main songwriter for the band from his home in Bloomington Indiana. He is casual and friendly and a man of few words. The band has been together for more than ten years, longer than the Beatles. Turla is modest in his response to their longevity. “It‘s all about a good diet and exercise… but more seriously- we have a fan base that is willing to grow with us and let us develop our sound.”

The band is known for its heavy touring schedule, a never ending tour of sorts year after year. Turla admits to a strong work ethic, “We just think of it as our job. A friend once described us as a blue collar band. We just show up for work every day- we are just lucky our work is doing something creative. We take care of ourselves by enjoying our free time effectively so we don't get wiped out from the grind”

“The idea is that we want to travel everywhere and if someone can arrange travel etc to a distant land we will do our best to make it work. I have always had wanderlust- as a kid I could picture nothing better than being Indiana Jones, travelling the world learning about cultures and fighting bad dudes.”

There is a story about Turla’s creative process on Magpie, going into the woods alone, fishing and writing. He admits that solitude is part of the process of creating new music,
“It helped- it was the whole point of the trip! I just needed to get out and focus only on songwriting. I just work on lyrics when they come to me. Once I have an idea it’s a mad dash.”

Turla has an expressive singing voice, a great husky tenor that recalls Nick Cave channeling Dave Mason and just a touch of Michael Nesmith. His voice seems to have matured through the years. It is quietly expressive without being too over-the-top emotive. His inspiration was surprising. “I think it’s just taken me a long time to develop and learn how to use my voice. I've never consciously tried to emulate anyone else but I love the singing of guys like Eric Burdon from The Animals- guys who go from a low growl to a shout.

Good Morning, Magpie is considered by a few in the know as a true American masterpiece, almost an artifact of days gone by when music was performed on instruments and the singer sang real stories about pain and suffering, love and redemption. Turla is humble in response to the praise. “I never thought about it as a masterpiece- but I’m glad you like it! I hope we have many more fine moments.

The disc has a wonderful eclectic feel from the Tijuana trumpets and jazzy motifs that punctuate the rhythmic feel On The Dark Street Below to the use of shuffle beats on Yes and Foxglove , the two-step waltz time on You Don’t Miss Twice and rock & roll on the coda of The Day. There are some dark lyrical themes that suggest Armageddon (Good Morning Magpie), the end of the world (White Noise) or the decline and fall of the American Empire (the Day) - the darkness versus light; good versus evil dialectic that is compelling and thought provoking. Not what you typically hear on the radio. It is an incredible musical accomplishment to create a cohesive body of music through the expression of such diverse idioms. Turla is circumspect about it, “We listen to a lot of different kinds of music - so we try to throw in cool little moments from various styles when appropriate. Eclecticism is kind of our bag.”

Turla and his bandmates Sarah Balliet (Cello), Matt Armstrong (Bass), and Dagan Thogerson (Drums) produced the album themselves. The sound is rich and pure with the vocal on top, the guitars on the right, the rhythm section in the middle and cello hovering above it all, weaving seamlessly in and out of the musical matrix. When this writer praised the pristine layered production, Turla remained humble, almost self effacing,
“Haha you are too kind. We just do what we do! We produced this album ourselves so I’ll take it as a compliment.”
Jim Dickinson one of the true musical geniuses from Memphis (along with Alex Chilton) once said that the best music is never recorded and if it is recorded it is almost never heard. He goes on to state that the best music is co-opted, pre-empted and recycled and then dumbed down for the masses. Pop music and rock & roll have done this quite effectively since original music such as blues, country and gospel became mass produced. It is all based in greed and exploitation. The recycling of musical ideas can be a tribute… and also a sham
It is band like Murder By Death that keeps music alive. Original music is not always an easy sell when you have mass produced Disney inspired claptrap dominating the airwaves and concert stages. Those creeps can even dumb down rap until it’s actually bubblegum music…poorly done bubblegum music. It’s hard to compete and make a buck when record companies look only to the bottom line and the public is willing to download crap for 99 cents. Sample and recycle that riff!
But there is a new reality emerging in which original music – blues, rock, jazz, and gospel - thrives in small pockets across the nation. This seems to be the case for many middle class artists on small independent labels. It’s a better relationship that has promise in keeping our best bands on the highways and the back roads touring across the nation and overseas. It isn’t very often you can see a band like Murder By Death in your own back yard. Don’t miss this chance to see and hear an incredible American band up close and personal.
Murder By Death will be performing at The Vault 505 E. Midland Street in Bay City on April 1st. Tickets are $10 and are available directly from The Vault or online at On the day of show, tickets are $12.

Bo White

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