On its fine 2011 release Outside, the mostly acoustic ethno-punk band o’death earns the macabre lineage of its name with a tempest of dark folk in far-flung styles. Like a murkier and more genuinely death-obsessed Decembrists, o’death roams freely through imagined places and pasts without much regard for ethnomusicological integrity, but with an abundance of mythic spirit and raw art. You’ll hear pirate hooks aplenty, as well as a refreshing hint of plague-tainted Renaissance street minstrelsy. Swarthy Castilian currents and Gypsy mendacities blow through the sound too, and maybe a spot of Balkan or Russo drunken despair in the harmonic minor waltzes and in the frenetic, plate-chucking dances.
The band hails from (say it with me, now) Brooklyn, New York. It is thus easy to hear o’death as a doomed, disturbed sibling of boroughmates Beirut, or maybe as a kind of rash that Sufjan Stevens developed on his ankles from repressing all his xenophobic anxieties. It’s a cool sound with a bit more wild Dionysian menace and a little less parlor refinement.
As obviously referential as the music is, the references themselves are light and non-binding. What matters here is the punk authenticity of this depraved world-folk impulse, not its historical legitimacy. It is not a particularly studied blend of folk traditions, but it is dramatically arranged and played. And it is vividly transportive, even if the coordinates of the transport remain vague, the destination yet another past that never actually happened, with Tom Waits and the original Kurt Weill pointing the way.
And as the album wears on, the listener notices less the “ethnic” ruse and more the chronic, swirling dark roots ambience of the sound. That coherent sound is what really belongs to o’death, not the Balkan samples. Like so many bands, o’death sets its haunted, mythic narratives against a backdrop of enveloping, moody atmospherics; like so few bands, they do the moods with wood and dirt exclusively (and a big assist in the studio from everyone’s old pal Reverb).
When o’death teams with Ernest Jenning Record Company labelmates Trummors (Saugerties) and the psychedelic folk/pop group Breakfast in Fur (New Paltz) at BSP Lounge on Friday, April 19, the evening might as well be sub-billed as a symposium on alternative means of ambiance and atmospheric textures. All three bands do it, do it brilliantly well, and do it with pedestrian and organic tools – in other words, without banks of synchronized laptops.
Trummors, the duo of Anne Cunningham and David Lerner (formerly of Ted Leo and the Pharmacists), does some fine work in the very Americana and Appalachian veins that o’death seems to have missed in its global folk crusades. Trummors plays a style that you could call country, but it is raga country, country as inner voyage: droning, pretty and plain, often sung without affect – much less country affectation. Trummors’ luminous 2011 release Over and around the Clove is an object lesson in how much restraint, taste and discipline really are required to achieve that exquisite sense of simplicity and naïveté.
Breakfast in Fur, alone among the bands on this night, will cart in the conventional tools of modern ambiance, which is to say standard two-guitar, bass and drums instrumentation augmented by a couple of keyboards, a sample trigger pad and so on. But looks are deceiving. Breakfast in Fur’s approach to sonic intrigue has always been proudly lo-fi and low-tech: an accordion that looks like a giant Victorian wedding cake; the very prosumer keyboard that Macklemore himself bought at the thrift shop, augmented with Indie’s ubiquitous MicroKorg; a single-use electric megaphone; and a well-stomped delay pedal that is dedicated to one vocal mic, a “hot mic” that gets used and tweaked by different people at different times in the set. From this modest and eminently affordable toy chest, the band finds endless sonic novelty and quirk.
To prove the point, as if on cue, Breakfast in Fur has just released a bonus track from its recently remastered 2009 six-song debut EP: a lost gem from back when the band was more or less mastermind Dan Wolfe working out his layered lo-fi vision with whatever toys he had on hand. The track, “Emily (Shine Part II),” is a delirious, melodious acoustic psych/folk workout with about a dozen layers of strings and snake rattle, subjected to a variety of surreal interruptions and disjunctive edits à la Lewis Carroll on the four-track. The sensibility is pure, delightful Postmodern, post-sampling art collage; but otherwise, nothing would have stopped this particular song from being played in the 19th century.
With good reason, we tend to assume a historical and aesthetic connection between electronic technologies and the textural, atmospheric genres. The three bands appearing at BSP on April 19 together make a case that the sound-painting, mood-shaping, layering impulse favors no particular style or toolset and could make a psychedelic storm out of an Elizabethan street band, if that were all that it had to work with.
O’Death with Trummors & Breakfast in Fur, Friday, April 19, 18+, $9 advance, $12 day of show, BSP Lounge, 323 Wall Street, Kingston; (845) 481-5158, https://bsplounge.com.