Rumpus Sound Takes: Appalachian Punk and Authenticity’s Chimera

By

O’Death
Outside (Ernest Jenning Record Co.)

Don’t let the banjo fool you. For all their eclecticism, Brooklyn-based O’Death’s frame of reference remains firmly indie—strained male tenor singing abstruse lyrics over pop arrangements. Of course, considering the band takes its name from an Appalachian folk song, it’s not surprising their sound evokes that world. Besides banjo, they boast fiddle and ukulele. The lyrics appropriate their source material’s darkest elements while their music weds folk melodies to punk tempos, resulting in Appalachian punk.

Lyrically, Outside consists of murder ballads, ghost stories, a couple paeans to the elements, and any number of gothic evocations of old, weird Appalachia. Tellingly, though, the album works best when the band breaks from their formula. “Bugs,” the first single, layers banjo, fiddle, and Greg Jamie’s voice over an upbeat chorus, conveying a tenuous sense of joy: “I’ve been wasting most my time / living for the day / when like bugs we figure out / how to make light stay.” Likewise, on “Pushing Out,” they juxtapose their uniformly dark subject matter against a poppy chorus.

Halfway through Outside, O’Death’s dirges begin to sound familiar, as does a characteristic chord change. Ultimately, a limited sense of their source material hamstrings the band—as if the world they evoke consisted solely of ghosts, dead girls, and windstorms. Not that it matters whether they’re authentic. Elvis, Dylan, Tom Waits—they faked it, too. They succeeded because of the breadth of their respective visions. By reducing Appalachian folk to a one-dimensional tale of woe, O’Death reveals the narrowness of theirs.

Nevertheless, rather than limit themselves to two speeds (fast stomp, slow stomp), as on 2008’s Broken Hymns, Limbs and Skin, on Outside, O’Death engages several middle gears. Improved production doesn’t hurt, either. Though the Waits comparisons might be off the mark, they’re useful. Consider how limited Waits’ range would be if he never ventured outside the carnival barker mode he employs on “Eyeball Kid.” While they’ve built their reputation on Appalachian weirdness, when O’Death expands their range, they get somewhere. Witness “Bugs,” the album’s wisest track. Authenticity’s a chimera, anyway.


Tom Andes has published fiction in Witness, Natural Bridge, News from the Republic of Letters, the Akashic Books Mondays Are Murder Flash Fiction Blog, Best American Mystery Stories 2012, and elsewhere. He lives in New Orleans and can be found here: @thomaseandes. More from this author →