Review Summary: Dead Songs builds on the group’s past releases and refines their ideas into a cohesive whole.
Originating and residing in Portland, Maine, Big Blood have self-released a steady set of CD-Rs and cassettes since 2006. Each is lovingly hand-made and illustrated with the artwork of Colleen Kinsella, artist and Big Blood’s main songwriter and vocalist, alongside husband Caleb Mulkerin. Dead Songs is the group’s first CD and Vinyl pressing courtesy of Time Lag Records, limited to 1000 and 600 respectively.
Dead Songs builds on the group’s past releases and refines their ideas into a cohesive whole. All the Big Blood standards are here: country twang, accordion sonatas and plucked banjo condensed into ragged electric rock, delicate folk and pub-chant sing-along. However, while the band has retained the intimate home-recorded feel that was so gripping on previous releases, there is a clearer attention to production. Electric guitar is perhaps higher in the mix than ever before – the thumping riff behind ‘Lay Your Head on the Rails II’ could be 1970s Neil Young - and Colleen’s voice is noticeably clearer while maintaining her incredible range of shrieks, howls and astonishing beauty. In addition, the songs are significantly tighter; where as in the past the group were encouraged to descend into psychedelic dirges, seven of the nine tracks stay within the five-minute mark.
Lyrically the record deals with themes of life and death, focusing especially on our relationship to the earth. There’s a self-referential quality to the group’s songs, recognising that, like their performers, songs are products of this world. On ‘Homebody Blues’ Caleb sings “all the strings that rust / playing broken fire songs / singing songs of ice and dust / freezing with no sign of thought.” The chorus wisely concludes, “all this *** and dirt and rain / makes me want to stay inside.” Later, backed by subtle drones and guitar reverb the graceful ‘New Eyes’ finds Colleen continuing the theme of time and the earth: “our buttons, feathers, notions, functions, scattered to the ends / our time on earth caught in the cracks too tiny to defend.”
It’s not all dark though. The record’s penultimate track, ‘Daughter’, draws on the record’s other main theme, family, highlighting the importance of close relations and the conflicting emotions they can create. To a drum beat, clapped rhythm and tambourine, Caleb yells “that will make you laugh / that will break your heart / that will make you cry / that will show you the sky”. It’s a joyous song that epitomises the kind of upbeat chant Big Blood are able to conjure at will. The album highlight however is the gorgeous nine-minute closer, ‘The Archivist & the Archaeologist’, which finds Colleen returning to a recurring theme in her work, memories and our relationship to the past, singing “my life is pulling details from the shelves / while our hearts are making sense of what’s left”. It’s an incredibly powerful song that really showcases Colleen’s outstanding voice. Ranking amongst the group’s best work, it rounds off the perfect introduction to this wonderful band.
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