Murder by Death lead singer Adam Turla sounds about 20 years older than his actual age (mostly because of a whistling lisp), and is inspired by Nick Cave and Johnny Cash, with a touch of the singing cowboys of yore. The Bloomington-based band inhabits a Hollywood old West, revised from those oaters of Tex Ritter and Gene Autry to accommodate Sergio Leone (and Ennio Morricone, of course), with songs focused on hard drink, prostitutes, death and nigh-apocalyptic natural imagery. If these tunes were translated to literature, they might become clichéd historical fiction, more Zane Gray than Cormac McCarthy; but as fractured love ballads and restless Tom Waits-esque primal moans, they work just fine.
Standouts on the band's fifth full-length, recorded at Farm Fresh Studios, include the fragment "Kentucky Bourbon," which leads into the infectious, full-fledged drinking song "As Long as There is Whiskey in the World," with its hints of Celtic punk (Pogues-style) and a propulsive double-time chorus. The wizened, downtrodden speaker in "Piece by Piece" seems a bit too familiar ("you wouldn't believe all the things that I've done... don't do what I've done when I was young"), but lyrical cello work distracts from the lyrics. "Yes" may not be a typical Murder by Death track because there's not much heft in the rhythm section, but it's a welcome bit of lightness in the album's second half, evoking Stephen Foster with its uplifting but elegiac melody.
And even the less memorable tracks are thoughtful, unpredictable and skillfully arranged. The band moves easily between genres and textures, from the mariachi horns of "On the Dark Streets Below" (echoes of "Ring of Fire") to the cello and singing saw duet on "Good Morning, Magpie," the hellish cabaret of "You Don't Miss Twice" to the rumbling, metallic drone anchoring "White Noise."