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Life After O'Death: a Billion Influences on the iPod Doesn't Necessarily Make for Good Music


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Obtaining and keeping music has never been so convenient, especially if you know what you're doing: From the darkest metal to the brightest pop, or from the straightest gospel to the grimiest hip-hop, the Internet's numerous ordained and illicit portals make it possible to nab most any recording you can name. Give me a few seconds and a laptop, and I'll give you that obscure vinyl Neu! bootleg that your friend never returned to you after that party in high school. Special orders, aficionado sections and the pricey imports of record stores have been replaced by bandwidth and disk space. It doesn't take expertise or a budget to have a huge (digital) record collection these days. It only takes curiosity.

On their third LP, Broken Hymns, Limbs and Skin, New York quintet O'Death warp a base of hearthstone-and-bedpost American folk with Balkan and Bolshevik melodies, classic rock oomph, baroque density and a smidge of hip-hop esprit. O'Death aren't beyond classification, exactly, but the members seem to think of music without qualifications, without confines, without CD cases and record sleeves and genre cards.

The band's songs don't exist in a vacuum, so the multiple influences at work come funneled into every track, not layered separately across the album. Like a hard drive choking on MP3s, everything—struck or plucked banjo lines, pounding or skittering drums, howled or hummed shouts and serenades—spins inside one slim case, integrated, self-contained, blending like a centrifuge in reverse.

O'Death are interesting, then, without being very good. At best, the band offer a telling look at how technology is shrinking borders by expanding resources. But their songs seem to crib lyrical, musical and technical clichés from all the forms they've fit into their iPods. The input is stronger than the output—vaguely enjoyable hyper-Americana that, appropriately, seems more suitable for a batch of soon-forgotten MP3s than for permanent 180-gram vinyl archiving. The band that made Broken Hymns, Limbs and Skin is clearly a work in progress, or a sign that progress is possible for bands willing to work. Opener "Lowtide" sounds like Charlie Daniels' "The Legend of Wooly Swamp" as covered by an international studies department, while "Legs to Sin" sounds like Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock trying to find himself with a stack of Bros. Avett and Stanley records. At least it's better than "A Light That Does Not Dim," which sounds exactly like Pickin' on Modest Mouse. Throughout, the production is thin, but the affectations are thick.

That mixed aesthetic is emblematic of Kemado Records, the New York label that released Broken Hymns: In six years, Kemado has released intense international psych by bands like Dungen and Wolf Rayet, stunted stoner metal by The Sword and Saviours, cocksure rock by Cheeseburger and Diamond Nights, and the sad-eyed, gorgeous folk of Marissa Nadler. The band represents the label's eclectic aesthetic, then, to a world (minus the dwindling ranks of purists) that's realized through praxis that there's less room for genre strictures. This is the time where Hootie goes country, Nelly jams with Kenny Chesney, Lil Wayne plays guitar (or not) with Kid Rock. Or, as importantly, where you can have the complete discography of those four artists on your iPod before your next trip to the toilet. But as with O'Death, Kemado's variety doesn't translate necessarily into quality. The label sometimes seems to lack real oversight, releasing records in an opportunistic, hot-right-now fashion.

The payoff, I think, comes in the relative youth of these systems. Remember, most of the world is still older than the Internet, and as much as the portal at our fingertips demands us to consume—music and movies, blogs and boards, Facebook posts and pokes—we can only digest and internalize so much so fast. Let's hope a polyglot band like O'Death and a similarly eclectic label like Kemado are only early points in a long dialectic, wherein the availability of music online affects the music that's made and, in the end, put online. Others will hear that music and whatever came before it, mixing one hybrid with new possibilities. The numbers argue that—as those permutations increase without bound over decades—some of the new tunes will have to be brilliant. Hopefully, we'll all live to hear the bands that come after O'Death.


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