I'm relieved that Gob Iron is just a special project from alternative-country howlers Jay Farrar (of bands Son Volt and Uncle Tupelo) and Anders Parker (of Varnaline)… not because it's bad, but because it's intense. Never has an album lived up to its title so strongly. Death Songs for the Living hits hard, heavy, and slow with a handsome grin – like death. But (also like death) this music still manages to demand both appreciation and deep respect.
Farrar's voice is the essence of man, with deep, musky overtones coming from the stiff mouth of a cowboy. The instrumental accompaniment plumps each somber melody beautifully and feeds Farrar's twang. Death Songs's 19 tracks shouldn't scare anyone away – half are 15-second instrumentals, each of which have an individual charm, and the songs for the most part are brief, usually telling a story, like those a depressed ranchero would sing.
Recorded while Farrar and Parker locked themselves away in St. Louis, their updated twist of classic folk songs is remarkable in that it hits its mark so well that an additional album would tilt the whole death theme too far into Gob's court. On opening track "Death's Black Train," Farrar's vocals strike first, giving an immediate country feel soaked in vintage; but tender and slow, not the show-off, look-at-my-rhinestone-spurs country that would never fall from Gob Iron's plate.
Most songs play out a story, and once you think you have them all down, a song will pop up with lyrics you least expect. For instance, "Wayside Tavern" begins slowly, and sounds like an ode to a favorite watering hole. Of course the singer meets a pretty girl at the bar, and you think the song will lead next into the familiar realm of country love, but rather you hear: "I felt her knife stick in my back / I turned and saw her lover on it / She said his name is Barney Jack… And now I sing beneath the ground." Farrar's voice never changes tempo from the slow-dripping shadows under a hat's Western brim, which makes these lyrics so striking.
A few songs jump from the Grapes of Wrath's soft dustbowl settings – "Nicotine Blues" runs a tinge faster, and an electric guitar chord slices through the song for the first time on the album (it's song number 11), but Farrar's voice is still there and still warm. "Buzz and Grind" brings about the everyday working man side that laces through the album strongly, and "Little Girl and Dreadful Snake"'s blatant symbolism warns parents never to let their children stray in more ways than one.
Death Songs for the Living plays more like a continuous stream of melancholy mourning coos lassoed out of Oklahoma than individual melodies from two wandering Midwestern musicians. With the instrumentals layered between songs, it might have been intended to have this globular effect, and I like it to an extent, but the huge block of down-and-out music makes it harder to pick up and listen to on a regular basis. Gob Iron's new album is great for a slow spin, but be forewarned, the more you listen to it, the more depressed you will become.
by Laura Misjak