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Outside Barnaby Smith , June 8th, 2011 13:22

O'Death's problem in the past has been having their music and message taken seriously amid the flailing chaos of both their live shows and to a lesser extent, their records. Any genuine depth, and the possibility of joining the critical premier league of indie-folk, has been somewhat obscured by exaggerated yokel tendencies (despite being from Brooklyn) that are almost crude parodies of Robert Johnson and his Satanic muse. In this way they have a lot in common with true Appalachians the Felice Brothers, substituting the Felices' preoccupation with sex with a fascination with mortality.

Outside is clearly a welcome move towards a more plaintive and considered sound, as if they have thought through the arrangements and song structures much more than before, when they seemed to approach recording rather too much in a 'capture the moment' kind of way – they are simply not that sort of band.

This audible maturity is probably down to the sombre experience of watching their drummer David Rogers-Berry go through treatment for cancer, but also a newfound deliberateness in their music. They took two months over Outside, suggesting a process far removed from previous albums Broken Hymns, Limbs and Skin and Head Home.

Maybe because of this method, Outside contains the best O'Death song ever recorded. That track is 'Ourselves', a brilliant, poetic masterpiece where vocalist Greg Jamie reins in his tones from his usual extravagance, giving them added gravity. The song ends with a fabulous, moving instrumental drone section that they could even have stretched out for longer.

Other positives are the Grizzly Bear-influenced 'Pushing Out' and the very fine 'Back Of The Garden', a track that, with its different sections and textured instrumentation, is one Sufjan Stevens would have been proud of.

The O'Death subject matter has not exactly moved on, obsessed as they are with both the metaphysical and biological facts of dying. But rather than the atheistic miserablism of a Bill Callahan or Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, or the spiritual posturing of many modern psychedelic bands, they continue to use death as a motivating factor; we aren't here for very long so we had better do everything as intensely as possible. Anyone who has seen O'Death live - with their shirts off, bellies out and spittle flying - will attest that they live up to that maxim. The tendency was that sometimes they would lose themselves too much, to the extent that they take their eye off the mechanics of the music. So the control and restraint on show on Outside is a palpable step forward for them.

Then again, their emphasis on celebrating the present is confused by the line on engrossing opener 'Bugs', "I've been wasting most my life/ Living for the day". Whatever it means, there are complications and layers to Outside that give O'Death new dimensions.

However, they do lurch back into boring old ways at times - 'Alamar' is a faithful nod to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds circa The Firstborn Is Dead, but rather than proving, like Cave, that the melodrama of Southern Gothic might best be understood by outsiders looking in, it is the sound of a band gratuitously persevering with a style that peaked for them years ago. Same goes for 'Howling Through' and 'The Lake Departed'.

Torn as it is between profundity and abandon, maybe we should take this album as a kind of transitional effort before O'Death go further down the path of sobriety and patience. Based on the best moments here, that is an attractive prospect, though admittedly an explosion of their booming energy is sometimes a joyous thing. Let's hope they are approaching the perfect balance.

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