O’Death - Head Home
Record Label: Ernest Jennings Record Company
Release Date: 2006; June 12, 2007 (re-release)
There’s something so earnest and authentic about bluegrass music - something simple and unrefined. Maybe it’s the history. Back in the days of the Civil War, mandolins and banjos were being plucked beside campfires hoping to ease the qualms and worries of many a soldier. It is with this same spirit that bluegrass music is still being played today. Sadly though the music has not gathered enough mainstream attention to vault it to its rightful place in contemporary music. Aside from chanteuse Allison Krauss and the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, bluegrass music has been stuck in a corner sandwiched between country and folk, two other genres whose mere existence is often the butt of many a joke. But this music is not a joke, and Brooklyn band O’Death prove that point quite well on their re-issued release Head Home.
Originally released in 2005, the album is backed by a hulking rhythm section and enough guitar prowess to make the Kinks smile, O’Death utilize their mandolins, banjos, and fiddles to create something unlike anything bluegrass has ever heard. Their music is the sound of a country hoedown on speed. That is to say this is country music under the influence of mind-altering drugs. It’s frenetic, it’s dizzy, it’s trippy and its core it’s also very, very bluegrass.
Singing about gothic themes like death, redemption, and salvation, O’Death have enough bite to make the meanest bulldog scared. Opener “Down to Rest” is a bit jarring in its sonic detail, but second track “Adelita” is downright gorgeous in its affections.
“The Crab Apple Switch” is a 40-second instrumental that features banjo and clinking utensils. If ever there was a song written on a backporch in the Blue Ridge Mountains, this is it. “Travelin’ Man” is an acoustic ballad in which Greg Jamie sounds as weary, whiskey-ridden and tired as those aforementioned Civil War soldiers. Then the album dives off as the crisp production that polished the first seven songs gives way to a very low drone, and Jamie’s voice sounds muffled and ineffective. A few songs on the last six are worth discussing, most notably the Gospel-tinged “Jesus Look Down,” and the album’s last two offerings, “Nathaniel” and “Gas Can Row,” which would both make Ralph Stanley quite proud.
Though two 40 second instrumentals dot the landscape of Head Home, at fifteen songs it’s still a lengthy work that stagers in places and leaves the listener tired. But for all its missteps, there’s enough substance and originality to make this a must listen.