The Guide to Getting into Murder By Death
The longrunning band's sound is not easily definable, and they've got a catalog of seven dense albums. So finding a starting point is tough. Here's a handy guide.
Tall James Photography
The name Murder By Death scares people off. At first glance the moniker makes the band seem like a gravely serious hardcore act, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. Murder By Death is something else entirely. Named after Robert Moore’s 1976 satirical whodunit film, the five-piece owns a wholly unique blend of gothic folk, brooding Americana, and a bunch of other genre tags that seemingly don’t make sense when mashed together. A misunderstood name for a misunderstood band.
Led by the husband and wife team of Adam Turla on vocals/guitar and Sarah Balliet on cello, Murder By Death has amassed a substantial catalog since forming in 2000 in Bloomington, Indiana. They recently announced that they’re nearing completion on their eighth album, The Other Shore, which, as they describe it, is a Western space opera, which is fitting for a band that’s written concept records about the Devil waging war on Mexican villages or the themes of sin in Dante’s Inferno. They’re raising funds for its release on Kickstarter, where they’ve been wildly successful in launching their last two albums, due largely to their oddball rewards, which have included private performances, riding rollercoasters with backers at theme parks, and recording songs of backers’ choosings for a covers album.
In their nearly two decades together, Murder By Death has never had much breakout success and has largely flown under the radar of music press. But they’ve got a cult-like following that’s kept them going. And since they’ve never had a hit record or been critical darlings, it’s daunting to find an entry point in their dense catalog. It’s hard to even pull individual songs out of their albums since each track is a piece of larger, carefully arranged story told across the span of the record. But for those looking to finally try out this band whose name might have been misleading, here are a few places to start.
Murder By Death’s Drinkin’ Songs
Whiskey has long been an integral part of Murder By Death fandom, so much so that their shows sometimes seem like drinking clubs that happen to feature live music. The band is now based in Kentucky, where Turla and Balliet own an Italian restaurant that boasts a robust drinks menu, and they take pride in their regional bourbon. In fact, fans often gift the band their own bottles of homemade moonshine.
Murder By Death’s 2010 album, Good Morning, Magpie, kicked off with a one-two punch about whiskey. The first track, a 34-second old timey ditty that came to Balliet while she was cleaning her bathtub, takes a sly jab at Jack Daniel’s with the line “You can choose your drinkin’ partner, and mine ain’t from Tennessee / Yes it’s straight Kentucky bourbon for me.” Sorry, Chris Stapleton. From there, it jumps into “As Long as There Is Whiskey in the World,” which, as could be gleaned from the title, is a love letter to liquor as a cure-all for life’s problems.
Things go from jovially tying one on after a long shift to sobbing at closing time on their 2003 album Who Will Survive and What Will Be Left of Them?, named after the tagline for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Its song “Three Men Hanging,” which opens with the sound of a drink being poured, includes this gutwrencher of a lyric: “If I put this revolver to my head would God turn against me instead of taking pity on a broken man?” Its album predecessor, “Until Morale Improves, the Beatings Will Continue,” features the fan-favorite lyric “I drink whiskey instead of water, ‘cause I can’t stand to be sober in this place.” And “A Masters in Reverse Psychology” always gets some raised glasses in the crowd with the line, “Keep knocking back the whiskey sours.”
There are other songs in the band’s catalog that might not make overt alcohol references, but still feel whiskey-soaked. Or it could be that their downtrodden lyrical content takes a shot or two to stomach. “Hard World,” for example, features as good of a lyric to toast to as any with “We carry the weight with us, it’s a hard world.” And “Dead Men and Sinners” is a pirate’s chanty that might as well come with a viking drinking horn.
“Kentucky Bourbon” / “As Long as There Is Whiskey in the World” / “Three Men Hanging” / “Dead Men and Sinners” / “Until Morale Improves, the Beatings Will Continue” / “That Crown Don’t Make You a Prince” / “A Masters in Reverse Psychology” / “Hard World”
Murder By Death’s Songs About Fightin’ or Fuckin’
With drinkin’ often comes one or both of its bastard children: fightin’ and fuckin’. And while none of Murder By Death’s lyrics read as overly violent or sexual, there’s an underlying darkened saloon vibe running through their tales of outlaws and ne'er-do-wells that fosters sinful thoughts and nurtures bad habits. A prime example: “Comin’ Home,” the opener on 2008’s Red of Tooth and Claw, perfectly soundtracked the Inglourious Basterds fixin’ to get themselves into some trouble in the movie’s trailer. Turns out, the lyric “Turning brick walls into doors, I’m comin’ home” is the perfect musical accoutrement for, as Brad Pitt would put it, killin’ Nahtzees. Similarly, In Bocca Al Lupo’s first track (they know how to throw an opening punch) “Boy Decide” rips a guitar solo in the middle of a song that reads like it was pulled from the first page of Cormac McCarthy’s The Blood Meridian.
“Rumbrave” follows a not-to-be-fucked-with narrator who “saw men to their doom,” while “‘52 Ford” sees a murder plot go wrong for the plotter. “Steal Away” kicks off with a sexy tip-toe plucking at Balliet’s cello strings, leading into a story about a jailbreak. “Sometimes the Line Walks You” also depicts a jailbreak (take that, Thin Lizzy) and features a call-and-response verse among the prisoners that never disappoints a rowdy crowd, nor does its line, “A woman and gin go together like the Devil and sin.”
“Fuego!” is a song in heat, dropping lines of lust like “Baby, it’s been so long that even the rose’s hips are turning me on.” But “The Black Spot” laments a relationship deteriorating: “My lover, we sure had something strong, until you took our love away and left before long.”
These are the songs to listen to when you’re up to no good.
“Comin’ Home” / “Sometimes the Line Walks You” / “Fuego!” / “Boy Decide” / “Rumbrave” / “Ramblin’” / “’52 Ford” / “Steal Away” / “One More Notch” / “Ball & Chain” / “Killbot 2000” / “Ash” / “The Day” / “The Black Spot”
Murder By Death’s Sing-Alongs
While Murder By Death’s albums are textured enough to warrant a few listens to properly unpack them, the band is smart enough to stick at least one immediately enjoyable jam onto each one. These songs, for lack of a better word, comprise the band’s “hits.” Most are simple enough to have the listener singing along by the end of the first play.
From the looks of YouTube, “Shiola” is probably the band’s most covered song since it’s a fairly simple acoustic number. “Foxglove” has been used as a wedding song by fans on numerous occasions, which is funny considering it’s about falling for an apparition, and Turla wrote it after waking from a fever dream on a camping trip. “I Came Around” is a song about looking past someone’s faults at their funeral and, of course, raising a glass to the old bastard.
Turla can usually rope in some new fans at Murder By Death gigs by teaching them the chorus of “The Curse of Elkhart,” which is a simple “A-ah! A-ah!” that can’t really be screwed up. “Send Me Home,” off of their most recent album Big Dark Love, might not be the most uplifting song, as it sees an older narrator begging for his earthly time to expire, but it will still worm its way into your ear. And “I Shot an Arrow,” also off Big Dark Love is probably the catchiest song ever written about an episode of The Twilight Zone.
“Foxglove” / “Brother” / “I Came Around” / “Shiola” / “I Shot an Arrow” / “The Curse of Elkhart” / “Send Me Home”
Murder By Death’s Dark Horse Songs
There are a few songs in the Murder By Death oeuvre that might not be surefire crowd-pleasers, either because they’re not raucous drinking songs or they don’t feature a catchy chorus, but they’re immensely beautiful nonetheless. The band almost always sneaks a change-up into the middle of a record to break up the flow, like “A Second Opinion” or “King of the Gutters, Prince of the Dogs.” These songs aren’t reliable setlist staples, but the band will break them out on special occasions, like when they play their annual New Year’s shows at The Stanley Hotel a.k.a. the hotel that inspired The Shining.
Murder By Death’s 2002 debut, Like the Exorcist, but More Breakdancing, saw the band still honing their sound, but managing to fire off the trancing “Intergalactic Menopause,” a long build-up that never really winds up anywhere. But “Lost River,” released ten years later, knows exactly where it’s headed, and is one of the most intimate songs the band’s ever written, featuring a spiraling duet between Turla and guest vocalist Samantha Crain.
Finally, if you’re going to write a sprawling concept album, you’ve got to stick the landing, and Murder By Death always does. It’s hard to even choose which album ends in the most epic fashion, but Red of Tooth and Claw (“Spring Break 1899”), In Bocca Al Lupo (“The Devil Drives”), and Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon (“Ghost Fields”) all throw their hats in the ring. “The Devil Drives,” though, with its three-minute fade-out choir chant of the soul-cleansing lyric, “There’s still time to start again,” carries In Bocca off into the most serene sunset. It’s hard to top that.
“King of the Gutters, Prince of the Dogs” / “White Noise” / “A Second Opinion” / “Lost River” / “Ghost Fields” / “Big Dark Love” / “No Oath, No Spell” / “Intergalactic Menopause” / “Spring Break 1899” / “The Devil Drives”
Murder By Death's Cover Songs
This one won’t be getting a playlist, since legal restrictions prevent most of Murder By Death’s covers from appearing on the internet. But they’ve performed a number of songs by other artists over the years, either for their two As You Wish Kickstarter rewards albums, or their split seven-inch series where they trade songs with other artists like Amanda Palmer, William Elliott Whitmore, and Twin Limb. Standouts include Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere,” INXS’ “Never Tear Me Apart,” The Misfits’ “Some Kind of Hate,” and dozens of other excellent renditions of everything from famous hits to obscure indie jams. Turla might also break out his “Bang Bang” cover if the mood strikes him. Again, these are tough to find online, so hearing these MBD versions might require hunting down the records or buying a ticket to one of their shows and shouting a request from the back of the room.