By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
It's often said that the greatest geniuses go unappreciated during their own lifetimes. The true brilliance of ancient masters like Michelangelo and Leonardo wasn't fully grasped until long after their deaths. People even underestimated the talents of Americans like Whitman, Bukowski and Eazy-E while they walked among us.
Then there are the musicians who find appreciation in their lifetimes, but not in their home countries. The Beatles didn't really get off the ground until they went to Germany. Many American jazz musicians throughout history have found a more receptive audience and community in Paris. And the idea of British and American bands being "big in Japan" passed long ago into the realm of cliche. Despite its considerable talent, Denver's own Bad Luck City (named after an R.L. Burnside song) might be destined for just such a fate. The sextet's music – a combination of Weimar cabaret, bloodstained Victorian tavern and whiskey-soaked Irish pub – seems as though it would be at home anywhere other than the U.S. and at any time other than the 21st century. Its most obvious musical and lyrical influences – Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave – are both non-Americans, and some of the ensemble's biggest supporters outside of Denver are in Austria and Poland.
"I think a lot of those early dark-Americana bands paved the way for us in Europe," observes Andrew Warner, Bad Luck City's drummer and co-founder. "DeVotchKa's touring over there right now; 16 Horsepower and Woven Hand put Denver on the map in Europe."
Warner and guitarist Gregor Kammerer hatched the idea for their very own dark-Americana outfit in 2001. The initial lineup comprised Kammerer, cellist Dave Nereson and Warner, a Denver native and longtime scene fixture. The group experimented unsuccessfully with a few singers until Kammerer brought in Dameon Merkl, with whom he'd played in the ska-punk-metal outfit Random Victim, to sing and play bass. The pieces started to fall into place as the group added pianist/composer Michael Andrew Doherty, violinist Kelly O'Dea and Yessit Arocho on harmonica and began writing songs together and playing live. For those early gigs, Merkl never wrote down a word of his lyrics. He simply showed up – usually drunk – and improvised on the spot.
"I would mostly go for laughs," Merkl recalls, somewhat embarrassed. "Some of the words weren't even English." For the song "Accident" he even read an ad from the back of the Denver Yellow Pages. "I'd actually bring the phone book to shows," he notes with a laugh. "But I'd call out my mom's number as the chorus. And she never got one prank phone call out of that. That just goes to show how much people are listening."
In 2004, Bad Luck City decided to commit a few of its songs to a self-titled CD. That record, however, is now renounced unanimously by the band and is no longer available. The group even refused to provide a copy for this article. "It was such a joke," Warner scoffs. "We didn't know what we were doing back then."
Merkl concurs. "I freestyled the lyrics on the record, too — and stuff that works live, when no one is really listening, just doesn't work. Listening to that record was a real inspiration to get the lyrics right next time."
Shortly after that first release, Doherty accepted a job in Durango, Nereson decided to move on, and O'Dea was pulled in several directions by her other professional and musical commitments. "The entire band almost collapsed," says Merkl. O'Dea eventually returned, and second guitarist Josh Perry filled Doherty's shoes. Around this same time, the others confronted Merkl about his drinking, though not in the way you might think.
"The band approached me," Merkl recalls, "and basically said that I had to choose between drinking, singing or playing bass." The aspiring writer decided to focus on drinking and singing. Handing bass duties over to Arocho, he initiated a more disciplined and writerly approach to his lyrics. The renewed focus and lessons learned from the first record pay off in a big way on Adelaide, Bad Luck City's latest album. Across nine eerie, lush tracks, the players create a palpable atmosphere that echoes Merkl's lyrics of drink, decay and death. Despite the ensemble's size, they create a sparse, textured space for his gravelly ruminations.
"That was definitely one of the goals in mixing the album," offers Kammerer, who engineered, mixed and mastered it. "Andrew and I wanted Dameon to come through on this one. We wanted the music to have more of a texture, breathe a little more and underline what Dameon is doing."
To that end, Adelaide — named for Merkl's grandmother — finds the gruff vocalist painting chiaroscuro scenes combining the psychological horror of Edgar Allan Poe with the dissipation of Huysmans and the morbid humor of Tales From the Crypt, all in a rich basso profundo. Murders are plotted, relationships interred and monsters hunted. Alcohol continues to play an important role, as roughly two-thirds of the record's songs contain some reference to drinking — mostly whiskey.
In Merkl's ominous tales, things are rarely as they seem. At first, "The Girls of St. Magdalene's Parish" sounds like a grim ghost story, but a closer listen reveals the simple narrative of a prepubescent boy's first kiss, dramatized in the fateful context of a Halloween party. Similarly, the album's closer, "Suffer the Day," initially appears to be a rueful love song, but just might be a murderer's confession. Even "Accident," which began as a Yellow Pages ad, has become a vaguely tragic story of domestic disorder. The horror lies not necessarily in the narrative details, but in the telling itself — in Merkl's deft word choices and languid, baleful delivery.