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Two Cents Presents Evil Don’t Look Like Anything: An Examination Of Modern Murder Ballads

Posted on 27 January 2011 by Mylynda Guthrie

– by Amber Valentine

I remember the first time I heard a modern murder ballad. Being raised on a fairly steady diet of classic country growing up, I was entirely familiar with songs that dealt with death at a young age and by second grade, I was telling pals that I’d shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, a proclamation which none of my peers found as funny as I did. When I developed my own musical taste, murder ballads fell off my radar as tunes dealing with matters of the heart became more prevalent in my life. Then I discovered Okkervil River.

I have a ridiculous, intense love for Will Sheff and his band of Austinites. It’s the type of love that affects my life on a daily basis, a love so intense that I’ve been known to present my friends with Okkervil River mix cds whilst wearing my Okkervil River hoodie as part of my constant championing of the band. I listen to Okkervil River every day and my face lights up like a child’s when they’re mentioned in passing by one of my friends. I even slip vague references to the band’s lyrics into every day conversation. Given these facts, it’s strange for me to think that a time existed not all that many years ago when I hadn’t so much as heard the band but it’s true: In 2004, I had nary a clue what or where Okkervil River was and the name Will Sheff meant nothing to me. Upon the release of the band’s triumphant Black Sheep Boy album, that changed and I subsequently immersed myself in the band’s back catalog, including the album Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See. On a whole, Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See was not as immediately hook-laden as the albums that followed it in Okkervil River’s discography and while the disc has grown very near and dear to my heart in very many ways, I wasn’t as impressed upon my first listen of the disc as I was with Black Sheep Boy. That is, however, until “Westfall”. “Westfall”, the fifth track on Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See, starts with hushed guitar and gentle mandolin. When Sheff’s vocals come in, they’re more composed and subdued than we’ve previously heard on tracks like “Lady Liberty” and “For Real”, where Sheff’s unhinged quality takes a featured spot to create the band’s urgent sound. So, when Sheff explains, as the true nature of the song begins to make itself audible, “When I killer her, it was so easy that I wanted to kill her again”, it’s so shocking that it’s enough to affect you physically. The first time I heard “Westfall”, the realism of Sheff’s storytelling had me rapt with attentiveness and, when the song climaxes with Sheff’s admission of murder, a wave of nausea overtook me. I’d never heard anything as shockingly affecting as “Westfall” before. And, thus, I began my love affair with modern murder ballads.

Westfall – Okkervil River


But what is it about songs about killing that I’ve taken such a shine to? I’ve never killed anyone and I can say with a fair amount of certainty that the majority of people who love murder ballads as much as I do haven’t either. In fact, I’m so sensitive to matters of life and death that I once cried when I killed a moth (Laughable but true). I can’t even imagine a scenario in which I would kill someone, even in a matter of life and death, as the prospect of murder is so frightening to me. I’m haunted enough by events in my past and less than respectable things that I’ve done. To add taking a human life to that list sounds nightmarish. So why is it that nothing enthralls me as much as Will Sheff luring an innocent co-ed into a forest and bludgeoning her to death? I feel as if this all comes down to morals. Murder ballads, as a subgenre of music (folk in particular), deal with subject matter that few other songs touch on. They let people examine the inherit morality (or lack thereof) in human beings. Most everything in life comes down to a question about one of three things: Love, God, and morality. I found David Bazan‘s harrowing loss of faith album, Curse Your Branches, a remarkably interesting take on “breaking up with God” and The Good Life‘s heartbreakingly honest Album of The Year forced me to take a hard look at the damage I was doing to my then-boyfriend in the relationship I was in when it came out. When the power of music is exploited in it’s entirety, it makes the listener examine their own life, and the morality touched upon in murder ballad is no exception to this. Chances are you’ll never kill anyone but through songs like “Mariner’s Revenge Song” by The Decemberists, you start to understand a fraction of the terror you might feel were the situation to ever arise and The Decemberists and Okkervil River aren’t the only bands taking the kitsch out of murder ballads.

Songs that deal with death are many, but most don’t examine the soul shattering event of actually taking a life. That’s what differentiates a “song about death” from a “murder ballad”. While John Vanderslice‘s “I’ll Never Live Up To You” tackles living with loss, the death in the song wasn’t at the hands of the tune’s narrator. San-Fran-by-way-of-Texas duo Agent Ribbons have a habit of tackling macabre subject matter more often than not but this is always done so in a tongue-in-cheek (and surprisingly seductive) manner and is never played for chills. Songs about morbid subject matter litter aren’t rare but instead of dealing with “morality”, these songs seem to deal with “mortality”. Interesting, yes, but not nearly as compelling as lyrics like “Climb into my arms with blood on your clothes” (Okkervil River’s “A Glow”).

Murder ballads pepper the modern indie scene with The Decemberists trying their hand at slaughtering the innocent on a number of their tracks, perhaps most notably on The Hazards of Love‘s main single, “The Rake’s Song”. “The Rake’s Song” finds Colin Meloy committing infanticide until he’s “living so easy and free” and confessing that, despite the fact that he’s poisoned and drowned his own children, he sleeps remarkably easy at night. Canada’s Timber Timbre have built their entire career on ghost stories and homicide, as evident on the band’s latest, self titled release, an album that touches on such bone chilling topics as grave robbing and necrophilia (“Lay Down In The Tall Grass”) and the electric chair (“We’ll Find Out”). The fact that Timber Timbre‘s dark subject matter is chased with a macabre romanticism makes the sexually deviant behavior Taylor Kirk mentions in passing have a strange allure to it that doesn’t exactly seem wrong. Arizona folk punk duwo Andrew Jackson Jihad‘s People Who Eat People Are The Luckiest People features “Bad, Bad Things”, a track that finds songwriter Sean Bonette brutally killing an entire family and surmising the events in the songs closing lines: “If I don’t go to hell when I die, I might go to heaven… But probably not.”

Perhaps the most remarkable modern murder ballad this side of “Westfall” is Fronteir Ruckus‘s brilliant “The Back-Lot World”, off the Michigan band’s full length debut, The Orion Songbook, sets it tone early on with the spooky quaver of a saw, coupled with the ungapping prose of Matt Milia’s lyrics, sung with a hushed manner that’s vaguely reminiscent of a sinner in a confessional, admitting their wrong-doings. By the time that Milia reveals “I killed a woman, she had it comin'”, you understand the gravity of the scenes that Milia has described earlier, from the “cooling rain clouds coming” to the “ghost-filled brimming field” that serve as an aching grey background for the mundane beauty of Milia’s storytelling.

Murder ballads in modern music are nothing new, per se. It’s not a budding trend like “lit rock” was a few years back or “chillwave” was in ’09. I don’t expect Pitchfork or Hipster Runoff to write about murder ballads because the fact of the matter is that murder ballads never went anywhere. From their inception in 1700’s English folk songs to “goth rock” artists like Rasputina, murder has always been a subject matter touched upon for dramatic storytelling. The way murder ballads are being tackled now, however, in the modern indie scene, is something different that I’ve taken quite a shine to. When I listen to music, I want to be affected. I want to feel something. For me, love songs are old hat, something I feel like I’ve heard before. Plus, I’ve loved and I’ve lost. But I’ve never killed a man. Hearing a song sung by a narrator that has, however, opens up my mind to horrific new possibilities that it may never think of without prodding. The low stakes involved when discussing heartbreak have dissipated in murder ballads. People recovering from heartache. More compelling are the risks involved when it comes to ending a life and the dramatics of this are darkly fascinating. When Meloy sings that the titular Shankill butchers “used to be just like me and you, they used to be sweet little boys, but something went horribly askew: Now killing is their only source of joy” and Sheff kills his ex-girlfriend’s new lover in “A Glow”, the unearthly allure of murder ballads is fantastically palpable.

-Amber Valentine

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Frontier Ruckus – “Junk-Drawer Sorrow”

Posted on 05 January 2011 by Mylynda Guthrie

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Courtesy of Music Fog

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Feeling Warm Inside The Swarms Of Hell: Rediscovering Michigan With Frontier Ruckus

Posted on 20 December 2010 by Mylynda Guthrie

- by Amber Valentine

I was made to love Frontier Ruckus. I didn’t know it and neither did the band but if there was one group that was tailor made to appeal to my better nature, it was Frontier Ruckus.

I stumbled across them earlier this year, in a press release, and took a chance on downloading their sophomore cd, Deadmalls & Nightfalls. It struck me right away how special the album was and within days, I found myself gushing about it’s beauty to all of my friends, insisting they listen to the disc by using the tag line “It’s like a Black Sheep Boy era Okkervil River that’s even more heavily influenced by Neutral Milk Hotel but with a Ben Kweller sort of twist to the vocals.” Thankfully, as my social circle consists mostly of indie kids like myself, these comparisons were met with nods of recognition and high expectations. Personally, it makes me nervous to hear anything compared to my beloved Okkervil River and the near-holy Neutral Milk Hotel, so comparing anyone to these two bands myself obviously means serious business. Few bands are as near and dear to my heart as Will Sheff’s Austin based Okkervil River and Jeff Mangum’s thoroughly affecting Neutral Milk Hotel but these Frontier Ruckus kids more than live up to the lofty goals they’ve set for themselves by drawing from these groups as influence.

From my first listen, I was taken with lyricist Matthew Milia’s lyrics. Wordy, tricky, and requiring multiple listens to decode thoroughly, Milia makes such indie rock wordsmiths as Sheff and Meloy proud with his poeticisms. It’s something that’s hard to ignore from the opening lines of “Nerves of the Nightmind”, a song that includes such enchanting words as “Getting to know you lash by dark lash, the beds where you sleep and the floors where you crash” and “The dampness of sweat is the sweetest recording”. As a backdrop to these seductive lines, wrought with longing and moodiness, are David Jones’ masterful banjo and an ensnaring web of horns and keyboards, the wonderful production of which never overpowers which is no small feat, considering how many elements are at play on “Nerves of the Nightmind”.

The album seamlessly works together as one cohesive work of art, each song transitioning so perfectly to the next that, while the twelve tracks of Deadmalls & Nightfalls do work as stand alone gems, it seems a shame to listen to “Springterror” without listening to “Ringbearer” and while “Silverfishes”, with it’s searing bitterness and dark overtones, sounds beautiful on it’s own, listen to it after the aforementioned “Ringbearer” and it’s charm is magnified infinitely.

Milia sings songs that are evocative of twilight in autumn. There’s an inherint sadness to Deadmalls & Nightfalls, no doubt due in part to Milia’s mournful croon and lyrics like “If I knew which part of me was wax, I would try to truncate it.” What exactly it was about Frontier Ruckus’ album that appealed to me so, however, I couldn’t put my finger on. That is, until I spent some time living with it. When I got to know Deadmalls & Nightfalls better, that was when I really fell in love.

Frontier Ruckus formed in Orion Township, Michigan. For reference, I grew up approximately forty two minutes from Orion, according to Google maps, deep in the suburbs surrounding Detroit so when Matt Milia sings “I shot down Telegraph with a hot laugh as we cruised through through the sinews” (“Silverfishes”), not only do I know what road he’s talking about but I know the exact feeling of flying down Telegraph, late at night, en route to a party somewhere near Detroit, the black of night tinged with neon lights and the road marred with gas stations and Michigan Lefts. The references sneak up on you, permeating the songs with their presence but never going so far as to make their presence glaringly obvious. This fact makes certain that Deadmalls & Nightfalls has an appeal that’s across the board and I’ve got friends in such far reaching corners of the country as New Hampshire and Seattle that cherish Frontier Ruckus’s masterpiece as much as I do. What I doubt, however, is that this album means as much to them as it does to me.

Moving back to Michigan, to me, was like admitting defeat. I had worked very hard for very many years to get out of the state, which was marred with the bad memories and worse experiences of my youth. Coming back was a distinct step backwards so far as I was concerned and every day spent in my homestate was a reminder that I’d failed at being a self-sufficient writer. I was just one of the countless casualties of living in the technological age but the fact that I wasn’t alone in my unemployment didn’t make things any easier, nor did my return to my homestate. My plan was to spend a few months in Michigan, to get my bearings straight and find another writing job. It was a longer process than I’d initially thought and it was depressing to find myself living in the same area I spent my formative years, identical to how I remembered it but so different at the same time. The record store I used to frequent? It was now a Jimmy John’s. The book stores and coffee shops and parks had all been knocked down and paved over, to make way for Barnes and Nobles, Starbucks, and strip malls. The jarring changes were just as heartbreaking to me as the fact that, despite these differences, these suburbs were still the same suburbs I loathed in middle school. And here I was, walking their streets once more, more than ten years after I first decided that after I completed my education, I was ditching the mitten for Chicago. It was in the midst of this dull depression about the sad state of my locale that Deadmalls & Nightfalls came into my life. And it was perfect.

Not only does Deadmalls & Nightfalls perfectly encapsulate the grey ache that mars the dull landscape of Detroit, but it also exposes the beauty that can be found in mid-Michigan, from “Sylvan Lake and in between, perpetually like Halloween” to “the billboard dentist from White Lake to East Lansing”. I might have expected Frontier Ruckus to soundtrack my sadness when I first discovered them but what I didn’t expect was for them to help me fall in love with Michigan for the first time. Despite the vast majority of my 26 years having been spent with the great lakes and college towns of Michigan as the backdrop to my existence, I’d never felt anything but disdain for my homestate. Soon, however, I found myself putting down roots in Ann Arbor, falling in love with the streets I’d walked down hundreds of times before but never truly taken in, all the while experiencing the same slew of emotions that Milia expresses so deftly on Deadmalls & Nightfalls. My emotional connection to the album was only magnified by the fact that I found myself frequenting Pontiac, the “heart of darkness” that Milia sings about on “Pontiac, The Nightbrink” and riding the same highways daily that are described during accounts of Milia’s trips to Ontario and Chicago.

Pontiac, the Nightbrink

I’ve been living with Deadmalls & Nightfalls for the greater part of six months now and, just like how Milia himself is desperately clamoring to get to know the object of his intrigue in “Nerves of the Nightmind”, the more I discover about the album, the more it means to me. With Deadmalls & Nightfalls, Milia has made a Salinger-esque ode to his homestate, the audible equivalent of “To Esme; With Love and Squalor”. Deadmalls & Nightfalls is just as much a love letter to Michigan and it’s residents as it is a man reminiscing about the sadness that he can’t just shake while he’s in his homestate and from start to finish, with Deadmalls & Nightfalls, Frontier Ruckus has created the ubiquitous soundtrack for time spent in the Great Lakes state.

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