Feature: O’Death (Boston Phoenix, 4.12.11)

Posted on April 19, 2011

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It must be a relief to realize that when you hit the stage, people know what they’re going to get. O’Death have spent the past several years banging out a reputation as grizzled folk punks who run their sets like moonshine raids. Which is great — you won’t find me complaining about a band who rampage through shows and leave crowds in tatters the way these guys do.

On the other hand, nobody wants to be a one-trick pony, and O’Death were on their way to becoming that kind of a deal. Not that it wasn’t a blast — towns burning down, drunken fiddles, topsy-turvy sea chanteys — but it’s always seemed they were sacrificing something as they ground everything they had into gunpowder freakouts.

New record Outside (Ernest Jenning Record Co.) — officially out April 19, but they might have a few advance copies at Saturday’s Great Scott show — goes a long way toward fixing that. “We sort of didn’t want to be a punk band that plays a banjo anymore,” said singer/guitarist Greg Jamie, from a tour van puttering through Oregon.

Anyone familiar with the band has followed what’s been a monumentally bummer couple of years. Drummer (and spastic heart and soul of the band’s live show) David Rogers-Berry was diagnosed with a form of bone cancer, osteosarcoma, while the band were on tour in 2009. He spent the next year in radiation treatment and getting a shoulder replaced, and most of the subsequent year recuperating. Jamie moved to Maine and opened folk club the Oak and the Axe in Biddeford while the rest of the band — banjo player Gabe Darling, bassist Jesse Newman, and violinist Bob Pycior on fiddle — stayed behind in New York City. They began writing the new record, slowly. “We normally write stuff and immediately take them on the road,” says Jamie. “And I think you can get sidetracked by it. What can I say? It’s a lot of fun to yell all night and have the audience yell back at you.”

The new material adopts another tack — every song conjures a web of rail-yard atmospherics, skeleton back-up choirs, and gnarled strings, but way out front are fine-tuned melodies and concise bits of songwriting that are the best ever from this band. Opener “Bugs” broods over kindling guitar picking while Jamie focuses his vocal palette on tender Neil Young–isms rather than Black Francis howls. The rest follows suit, favoring space and texture over brute force. Daylight fades and widows roam the earth. A hail of chains and steam-engine percussion paves the way for the medieval incantations of “Ourselves,” a furious climax of blown-out banjo that nevertheless seems to have been sent in to clear the brush for the quiet, funereal “Look at the Sun.”

But personal? Jamie doesn’t think so. “Personal is a weird word. I’m not even sure what that means with music. It was the first time we were really just writing songs and had thrown out the idea of ‘Is this an O’Death song?’ It definitely seems more sincere to me.” Whatever, it’s led to what feels like O’Death’s first substantial album.

Not to say that the old spirit is going anywhere — you can expect plenty of horsepower this time around, notwithstanding gentle new songs or Rogers-Berry’s new shoulder. “We weren’t sure how it was going to go in terms of playing every day on this tour,” says Jamie. “But David’s doing great. Even if he’s a little sore, he’s not complaining.”

Originally published in the Boston Phoenix here.

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