To date, I can only name three punk bands with a cello—Cursive, The Ex and Murder by Death. The Ex, having gone through various evolutions during their career, only used this device prominently on two albums, so this may not actually count. And Cursive, despite having added a dark theatrical quality to their 2003 album The Ugly Organ, lost their cellist (she quit, for those of you who might interpret that in a more macabre way) not long ago. Yet Indiana’s Murder by Death holds the record with cellist Sarah Balliet on board for their third full-length, setting their black sails for the darkest of waters, Balliet’s weeping strings lending just the right gothic touch to the band’s ragged Americana.
I mention the cello, not because it’s a gimmick, but because it’s such an essential aspect to MBD’s whiskey-drenched punk. In the ominous intro to “One More Notch,” it practically spells out impending doom. In the gypsy waltz of “Dynamite Mine,” it conjures a nasty curse. And in the tell-tale “The Big Sleep,” it unfolds the slow motion replay of blood spilled in a gritty, sepia-toned murder. Though Balliet’s presence can, at times, be quite subtle, it always fits, and sometimes sets, the mood perfectly.
That particular mood is primarily created by the gritty tales of frontman Adam Turla, a deep-throated bastard son of Johnny Cash with a penchant for barn-burning rockers. His narratives fall somewhere between the murderous ballads of Nick Cave and the roguish exploits sung by The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, with backing by The Pogues-by-way-of Gun Club. Fiery organ colors the opening “Boy Decide,” while “Dead Men and Sinners” trots along like a sea shanty for bloodthirsty pirates. First single “Brother” is a noteworthy cut, not only for how much it rocks, but in its lyrical similarities to Bruce Springsteen’s “Highway Patrolman,” the poignant line “I know there’s better brothers/ but you’re the only one that’s mine” echoing the Boss’s words “Man turns his back on his family/well, he just ain’t no good.”
A sucker for a good, loud rock song, I can’t deny how fierce Murder by Death is when they let `er rip, which, in this case, is just enough. After the slower “Dynamite Mine,” the band creates a surprising level of intensity on mostly acoustic instruments. “Sometimes the Line Walks You,” however, is the loudest, meanest and least apologetic of the bunch, Turla eventually maniacally howling “Jailbreak tonight/bring on the floodlights!” Yet on the quieter songs, like the almost hymn-like “Shiola,” Turla cries “all will be forgiven,” but amidst all of the wrongdoing on this doomed work, one can only assume that it won’t. And as the protagonist walks toward his final descent, it would only seem fitting that Balliet’s moaning cello guides the way.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.