Psych-Pop To Die For

The Deaths' pretty la la la las of despair

I know nothing about Forfar, Scotland. But I'm envisioning a windswept medieval town that's dotted with crumbling stone houses, splotches of multihued lichen providing the only bits of color on what's left of the buildings' gray walls. A forlorn cemetery lurks in a patch of tall grass, the embossed dates of birth and death on the tombstones long ago worn smooth. It's not a sad place, exactly. It's more sullen, resigned to the realization that so much more has gone by than is yet to come.

These images coagulate from the ether as I watch Karl Qualey slowly smoke a cigarette. Sprays of brittle blond hair stick out from under the dark green cap he has pulled down just above his eyes. He has an air of moroseness. Qualey, who lived in Forfar until coming to the United States at age 14, seems to embody everything I imagine his hometown to be. The Scottish accent is all but gone now, but his personality retains a subtle darkness.

Qualey, along with the other four members of local band the Deaths, is tucked into one of the booths at Nye's on a recent Thursday night. During the course of the evening, it becomes clear that the rest of the Deaths share Qualey's not entirely sunny worldview, although they laugh at the misconceptions their band name inevitably inspires.

"A lot of people are surprised when they hear our music because they think we're going to be a black metal band or a white-label punk band," says guitarist Mark Schumacher. "Anyone who's ever designed a poster for us without having heard our music has automatically put skulls and blood and stuff on it."

No, the Deaths are about as far from Slayer as Dead Can Dance is from, well, Slayer. Theirs is a much more gentle fatalism. On their moody debut release Choir Invisible (GoJohnnyGo Records)--which not surprisingly is an obscure old saying for those who have passed before us--they draw on the tripped-out influences of '60s bands like the Velvet Underground and the Doors. Things start off a bit deceptively with the upbeat "Birmingham." Drummer Tom Stromsodt's busy snare work rustles playfully beneath simple guitar lines that ring in your head like the random tinkling of wind chimes. The influence of innocent '60s pop continues on "See You Tomorrow," particularly in the rapid-fire, high-pitched "la la la la" backing vocals, which seem to have been aided by a little helium inhalation. A rather straightforward song, it provides Qualey with ample room to exercise his impressive Bowie-esque vocal range.

By track three, the Deaths allow their arrangements to open up and the ensuing emptiness takes on a wonderfully eerie quality. The band is at its best on "A Sea Is a Sea." A starkly plaintive song, it plods along like a funeral procession. Jeff Esterby's minimalist organ hovers in the background like an undisturbed mist, his meaty voice like Tom Waits without the gravelly rasp. When he sings, "The sun is going back from where it came/In daylight all directions look the same," he conveys a leaden despair, a hopelessness that's been with him quite some time.

By the time you get to track nine, "Goodnight," the Deaths have dissolved into full-on weirdness. The song is essentially a soup of melodies and phrases from the preceding eight songs that slosh around, surfacing enough to be intelligible for a few moments, then sinking back into a mush of white noise and reverb. Unfortunately the transitions between these snippets are clumsy and the whole concoction feels kind of thrown together.

Although the band formed in 2000, Choir Invisible is the first Deaths album, and the members say the wait has been well worth it. Despite writing about a world of half-empty glasses, the Deaths are feeling pretty good about most things now. To illustrate this irony, they recall an incident that occurred on a barren stretch of North Dakota highway last March. The band was heading out on a tour of the Pacific Northwest in a dilapidated 1977 Chevy van when they hit a stretch of glare ice. As the van began to roll into a ditch, Qualey calmly informed the rest of the band (none of whom were wearing seat belts), "Hey, we're going to roll, but everything is going to be okay." Qualey was right. The van rolled, and other than a few cuts and bruises, they were okay. You can almost imagine the smiles spreading across the faces of the Deaths.

 
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