Munly & the Lupercalians – Petr & the Wulf (10/25/2010)

Denver’s so named Gothic Country scene is undoubtedly an odd one, and one almost exclusively defined by its area, not spreading beyond its fairly tight community until more recently.  Hell, even the very name, Gothic Country, probably puts bubbles of stifled laughter in some throats–at the very least, a crinkled brow at the perplexing level of incompatibility being presented here.  So what makes Jay Munly so interesting?  What makes this nearly Denver based collective of musicians and ideals not only thrive, but put out some of the most impressively creative and unique music that Country and modern Folk has seen in some time?  Neo-Folk is not new, and indeed has little to do with the music that is being made there–stylistically or otherwise.  Even the Folk influenced bands of the New Weird America collective don’t sound like this.  The music has its roots in the mid nineties, but has gained a great deal of forward motion and attention–and rightfully so.  Our ideas of modern Country music are pretty dismal, and the soul and creativity on display here are worth all the attention in world–it’s time someone started to take Country back from nasal twang hooks, self-parodying lyrics and gimmick instruments.

The style itself is much more true to the name than saying how good it works implies–though it does draw heavily from genres like Country, Bluegrass, Americana and Gospel, Gothic music has a huge impact on Jay Munly, and indeed most of the movement itself.  Though the instrumentation can be easily surmised, being comprised of more or less traditional instruments, the actual themes are fairly varied, but in rightful array following its Gothic side, are fairly dark. So, as a whole, while not all histrionics and shenanigans, it’s rarely what you’d call upbeat.  However, the lyrics are often very narrative and follow a great deal of Country traditions involving storytelling and homegrown experience, albeit a modern and less than bubbly outlook.   The whole amalgam of  influences works because of the care and effort of the bands involved–taking aspects from each, they show their respect for the respective musics, and not using them as gimmicks or crutches or attention grabbers.  Everything is an integral part of the music.

The first thing noticeable about Munly and his music is his voice.  It’s a Country voice.  In fact, it’s one of the most important aspects of the music, and it has a unique quality to it.  Very unique.  It’s high, without being screech, but by no means is it low and gravelly; his voice a great deal of emotion behind it, wavering and straining during the right parts, as well as delivering his lyrics with articulate succinctness.

And those lyrics… good lord.

Probably of his most acclaimed, his lyrics are the product of both some dark experience and a sharp tongue.  His own brand of homegrown insanity has some incredibly unnerving qualities to it (in a good way, mind you), without actually having to resort to typical “dark” words or topics.  The content is heavily narrative, featuring distinct stories and themes within each, ranging from more direct and darkly humored stories to abstract and unnerving pseudo-fables, drawing largely from the topics of religion, country life and culture, families and/or how broken they are, as well as general experiences throughout his life.  His lyrics on Petr & the Wulf aren’t as soul crushing and biting as they are on Munly & the Lee Lewis Harlots, generally speaking, but they do have his trademark, striking power to them–often black as black humor mixed with some dark topics and themes, but without really delving into the bottom of it.   The lyrics on this album are slightly more upbeat, as well as the music made to accompany it, and though  indeed they probably sound a little more abstract and unusual in the music, a few listens gives a better grip on his word weaving.  If you listen to Munly, listen to the wordsmith.

Musically, the album is more lush sounding than his previous albums, especially Munly & the Lee Lewis Harlots; the music itself isn’t necessarily more composed, or features more instruments (though it does) to make a difference, but overall feel is more organic, as opposed to the dusty, bare bones feel of the Lee Lewis Harlots. Unlike the previous album,which featured only acoustic guitar, banjo, double bass, a small drum kit as well as a viola, violin, cello trio, Petr & the Wulf features keyboards, piano and numerous woodwinds along side more traditional instruments like the banjo, violin and cello.  The Gothic influence can be heard more usually in this album, musically, as the keyboards are often used to great effect with ambiance within the album, especially on the final track of the album, which is a near complete departure from style… and probably the major (if minor) hiccup in the album.   The tempos vary within the album, but it is generally more forward driven in attitude, giving a more rock feel to the folk skeleton.  Songs like Petr and Duk have a very fast feel to them, bouncing with melodies and hooks, usually featuring a great deal of accompanying instruments, from Piano to Tuba.  Each song relies on the culture of the instruments as much as the song writing to give itself a unique identity,  as opposed to the approach of the Lee Lewis Harlots. Things like organ passages, piano riffs, baa-rumping Tubas, fluttering flutes and somber violin melodies all give personality and atmosphere to the songs, and give more flavor to the lyrical themes.  Three Wise Hunters uses a completely different approach with the keyboards, using a creepy, almost droning tone at the beginning, slowly adding somber banjo and violin melodies, until the song explodes.  The music here is absolutely phenomenal, make no mistake.  Simply stunning.  My accolades of Munly’s lyrical prowess don’t  make his composition skill any less endearing–he knows how to write a song that keeps interest as well as delivers an intention.  The only real problem I even have with this album with be the Wulf track… and that’s not really even much of a complaint.  It’s a giddy song that borders on goth rock while retaining Munly’s style and Folk  influence, but it has an unusual feel within the album as a whole, being a not entirely unusual departure of style, but slightly more jarring as a final track.  But it’s awesome.  It’s an experiment that takes full advantage of a disregard for boundaries and a desire to create a new feel.  It’s aggressive and catchy, toe tapping and atmospheric… and distinctly Munly without being usual.

He did it again.

If Munly is a future of Country music, then I for one welcome our new Denver overlords (represent, Colorado!).  The album is memorable and well executed–a combination of fantastic songwriting, lyrics and intelligent music compositions.   This is one of the best releases of this year, period.  Hillbilly hell, homegrown insanity and morose country tunes, the music is something that needs not be missed, nor ignored.

Absolutely outstanding.

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