Review Summary: Like "Who Will Survive..." But With More Failing
After the baroque and original Who Will Survive and What Will Be Left of Them, Murder by Death followed up with the underwhelming In Bocca Al Lupo. On a whole, their sophomore album (junior if you count the LP released under the name Little Joe Gould) was just less memorable than Who Will Survive.... The songwriting felt a little flatter and the schtick of a truly Western sounding alternative / indie rock band had worn a bit thin. At its bluntest, Red of Tooth and Claw is the same song, third verse. It's just another Murder by Death album that fails to live up to the promise of Who Will Survive.... However at its most elegant, Red of Tooth and Claw can be seen as a continuation of Murder by Death's idiosyncratic style. The album isn't much different on a whole, but fans will appreciate getting to hear more, and especially getting to have songs like "Fuego!" and "Steal Away" be added to the list of Murder by Death classics.
First, let's look at how this album fails. It'd be presumptive of a listener to expect a band to evolve by leaps and bounds in any one release (going from American Idiot to Punk in Drublic, say, would be impossible), but when the band sounds content to rehash the sounds of their previous albums, with few tangible differences, there is trouble brewing. Tracks like "Rum Brave" and "Ball & Chain" feel like tepid renditions of the uptempo "The Desert Is on Fire." In fact, they feel like lame rock and roll versions of the more compelling fast tracks from previous releases. On a whole the album suffers from being more conventional in its rock influences than previous albums. Oddly enough though, the vocals have become even more affected in their Western tinge. Singer, Adam Turla, unabashedly imitates Johnny Cash throughout most of the album, most notably in the first line of the first track. He has certainly improved his sustain and timbre as a vocalist since the early days (do a side-by-side comparison if you don't trust me) but his vocals have also lost a little of its luster, character, and originality.
Now, let's look at how this album succeeds. As much as there are faults here, this album is enjoyable from start to finish. Murder by Death has an undeniable charisma to their style. As aforementioned, it's idiosyncratic and singular. Their alchemy of indie, alternative, country, folk, and general Western Americana sounds would ring as true as ever if it weren't for the fact that it is somewhat played out. However, there are some great tracks on this album. From "Fuego!" to "Ash" I am very happy with the songwriting. "Theme (for Ennio Morricone)" invokes Rza's soundtrack for Kill Bill when it reaches its crescendo and the horns blare out over the triumphant guitar chord progression. "Steal Away" begins on an almost Mingus-like bass lick that creates a unique tone that propels the song's slow-burning power. The final track, "Spring Break 1899," also has a unique amicability. It invokes doo-wap to create a slow, epic final track (that ends on the same player piano melody that opened the album Who Will Survive...).
There are some sweet tracks on Red of Tooth and Claw and that should be enough for any tried-and-true Murder by Death fan, but for newbies and skeptics, I'd recommend Who Will Survive... in a heartbeat. As an album, Red of Tooth and Claw suffers from being an inferior doppelganger of the band's previous successes.