In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well — some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing.
When Murder By Death reached out to fans via Kickstarter to crowdsource its sixth studio album —Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon—the five-piece rock outfit offered fans an alluring incentive, albeit a costly one. At the $1,000 pledge level, Murder By Death offered to cover any requested song, record it at Farm Fresh Studios, and present it to the backer in a handmade, one-of-a-kind CD case, with the understanding that the track would also be released digitally for other backers. To make things more interesting, the band even made the offer knowing the selectors could even choose songs it absolutely hates. “And we hate a lot of stuff,” read the response to the frequently asked question. “But that could be interesting and cool. Sometimes, the songs you don’t expect to work turn out even better.”
The resulting 15-track collection — dubbed As You Wish and presented with cartoon art of the band members in sky blue tuxedos — proves both interesting and cool, with everything from perfect fits (Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World”) to stylistic reinventions (“New Coat Of Paint” by Tom Waits) to the just plain delightful (“Hold On” by Wilson Phillips). If the band actually “hates” any of the covers on As You Wish (free to backers, $10 for anyone else via Bandcamp), it doesn’t show. Each cut is a loving homage to the original with a twist that gives Murder By Death an equal sense of ownership.
But the opening track, a cover of the INXS hit “Never Tear Us Apart,” suitably drives the album with its powerful take on the ’80s ballad. The instrumental lead-in replaces the synthesizers with the beautiful strings of cellist Sarah Balliet, who also performs a moody solo to do the job of the original’s saxophone near the midway point. But the Johnny Cash-esque baritone vocals of Adam Turla truly elevate the song. There’s a level of conviction in the words “and they could never, ever tear us apart,” that simply doesn’t exist in the original. When Turla sings it, the listener believes it. It speaks to true romance. If both are party bands playing a slow dance, INXS played it for awkward teenagers at an eighth-grade mixer; Murder By Death plays it as the first dance at a wedding. The dramatic pauses remain intact.