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Music  |  Reviews

O'Death: Outside

[Ernest Jenning]

April 21, 2011  |  11:00am
O'Death: <em>Outside</em>

The biggest impediment in O’Death’s career is that they hail from Brooklyn instead of some backwoods holler somewhere in the Ozarks. Known for their sweaty, often shirtless live shows, the band mix mountain music with metal and punk, creating darkly atmospheric records that are both Thomas Hart Benton gothic and Hot Topic goth. But because they’re based in a hipster enclave, they’ve been called out as ersatz hillbillies—as if traditionally rural music couldn’t be made in an urban setting. Hell, Woody Guthrie lived in Brooklyn years before O’Death was born, Dylan and other earnest strummers practically reinvented folk music over in the East Village. Geography doesn’t determine authenticity.

Just as O’Death shouldn’t be derided for their adopted hometown, they shouldn’t be excused for it either. They would be problematic and limited anywhere. For all the bluster on their third album, Outside, they have only one conception of traditional American music, and it’s relentlessly bleak, thundering, thudding, and transgressive. Greg Jamie writes murder ballads, quasi-Biblical ponderings, and ghost stories out of a sense of obligation — as though demanded by the genre — and the band members bash them out with emphatic bluntness, beating their instruments and our eardrums into submission.

Outside doesn’t paint the goth-black coat on quite as thick as previous albums, but there remains a suspicion that O’Death are playing dress-up in worn overalls and wifebeaters. “Bugs” begins the album on a high note, with what sounds like real dynamics: Jamie finds a strong melody to hang his reedy vocals on, and the band dial back the ominous din. When drummer David Rogers-Berry ratchets up the tempo and sends the song barreling down a mineshaft, “Bugs” suggests a potentially viable and possibly even a compelling reimaging of Americana tropes.

Nothing, it seems, could interest the band less. As Outside progresses, the arrangements and lyrics grow increasingly predictable, as if O’Death have shown their best tricks early. “Alamar” stumbles along on strident guitars and a trudging rhythm section, which makes those friendly-ghost backing vocals sound self-parodying. With its dissonant strings, carnival accordion, and distorted vocals, closer “The Lake Departed” conveys a dubious gravity: “Leave her body in the snow,” Jamie practically yells, but there’s no sense of real loss, just an exaggerated dread.

And therein lies O’Death’s true shortcoming, which has nothing to do with geography and everything to do with influence: They’re so determined to conjure a gothic America and its black-and-white morality that they fail to acknowledge the grace and sophistication of their source material. Whether it’s homegrown talent like Ola Belle Reed or a crossroads-conflicted bluesman like Robert Johnson, Americana is smart, diverse, and often very subtle, with gradations of tone and emotion that can’t be captured in words and therefore justify music as a means of expression. O’Death never allow such nuance: Their range extends from dark to slightly darker, which casts their music as more caricature than character, more Snuffy Smith than Dock Boggs.

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