In Bocca al Lupo (Tent Show), the third full-length from Indiana’s MURDER BY DEATH, isn’t a concept album like 2003’s Who Will Survive, and What Will Be Left of Them?, which is about Satan exacting his revenge on the small desert town where he got shot in a bar fight. But the theme’s pretty much the same–ordinary life darkened by some spooky evil–and their macabre prairie songs are still built on jangly Americana and theatrical murder ballads, with a touch of the Gypsy jitters. Guitarist Adam Turla sings like a much older man–think Rick Rubin-era Johnny Cash–and the flatness and resignation in his voice lend gravity to the songs, even if he’s hammy on occasion. I like him best when he ditches his methodical country croon for gravelly wailing; set against the band’s occasional tempestuous gales of hard-strumming noise, he sounds like he’s really lost all those dead people he sings about, instead of a character narrating a western. Sarah Balliet’s cello adds to the mournful, ominous mood, and she’s ultimately the band’s not-so-secret weapon; she can go from leading a funeral procession to jumping on the pyre with the strike of her bow.
Taking his stage name from his Pennsylvania hometown and his blues sense from Skip James, LANGHORNE SLIM plays troubadorial Americana ditties in a sunny, deftly orchestrated way–not unlike the two Stevenses, Cat and Sufjan. His debut album, last year’s When the Sun’s Gone Down (Narnack), is as perfect an execution of vision as first records get: he’s got all that hyper-kid energy battering its way out of his voice and hands, and Charles Butler, one of a handful of guest musicians, really emphasizes the “hammer” part of clawhammer banjo playing. The manic pacing, with too-fast blues rips, recalls Led Zeppelin’s reappropriations, though Slim’s no-budget, apartment-bathroom acoustics keep him a lot more low-key. His voice is ragged when it’s low and desperate and cracks when it’s high; he’s got a curdled Appalachian holler so sincere and sweet he could break your heart singing the Berwyn phone book.
Murder by Death headlines, the Metal Hearts play second, and Langhorne Slim opens. Murder by Death also plays a free show 2 PM at Reckless Records, 3161 N. Broadway; call 773-404-5080. Sat 5/27, 7 PM, Metro, 3730 N. Clark, 773-549-0203 or 312-559-1212, $13. All ages.