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."
Bad Luck City
CD-release show, with Monofog and Oblio Duo, 9 p.m. Friday, February 29, 3 Kings Tavern, 60 South Broadway, $5, 303-777-7370.
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.
Still, the new record does not begin with the singer's signature storytelling. Instead, the first track is a mournful, haunting adaptation of the late Lee Hazlewood's "The Night Before" — almost as if to underscore the act's existence outside the American mainstream. The song comes from the eccentric songwriter's Cowboy in Sweden album, a record he made while in a kind of self-imposed exile in Europe. And as it turns out, the subject matter — whiskey and regret — suits the record's overall tone and theme beautifully.
Likewise, subtle and nuanced musicianship shines throughout. No one instrument draws attention to itself aside from O'Dea's appropriately plaintive violin. Warner's restrained yet poignant drumming provides just the right amount of rhythmic impetus, while Kammerer and Perry's guitars weave shimmering, unobtrusive tapestries. On "The Distaff," the guitars and violin are completely displaced by an elegiac trumpet line provided by Born in the Flood's Joseph Pope III, creepy backing vocals by Warner's sister Rose, and a minimalist piano figure, performed by Warner's other sister, Kate, who also co-wrote the song. The album's centerpiece is "Stealth," a paranoid, expletive-drenched portrait of a character who is either a skilled hunter of demons or a hopelessly deluded drunk. Oddly enough, before the Adelaide sessions, Merkl was nearly ready to throw the song away.
"I got to the point where I didn't really like it," Merkl confesses. "It didn't evolve. It was still in that Joe Crack-Up mode." That all changed when the group enlisted Monofog vocalist Hayley Helmericks as Merkl's duet partner. "Once Hayley showed up," he says, "her first take made it my favorite."
"It got real evil, real fast," agrees Jeremy Ziehe, who joined as the band's bassist when Arocho departed, shortly after Adelaide was completed.
Though considerably more dramatic than its earlier incarnations, "Stealth" still contains a remnant of the humor that first inspired it. The track ends with the punchline of Merkl and Helmericks, the song's hunters, choosing liquor shots over gunshots. While the frontman focuses on high-quality Irish whiskeys — including the Colorado-made Stranahan's — Helmericks recites a roll call of some of the cheesiest alcoholic beverages available, including Cactus Juice and Hot Damn.
"I think that song could be our first pop hit," Perry muses.
"If only it didn't have all those cuss words," Warner interjects.
"We could always do a radio edit," Ziehe jokes.
With or without radio singles, Adelaide is a deliciously gloomy, wickedly humorous and richly atmospheric collection that establishes Bad Luck City in the pantheon of the very groups that Warner name-checks — melancholy, vaguely sinister acts, like 16 Horsepower and Munly, who have come to be associated with the so-called Denver sound. Bad Luck City, however, has very little planned to promote or distribute the disc.
"I was gonna put them under windshield wipers," Perry kids.
Even when it comes to touring, the outfit is remarkably uninterested.
"We've never even played outside of Denver," Kammerer points out.
"Not even as far as Wheat Ridge," Merkl adds.
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Though touring and promotions are far from the band's mind, its members would like to pick up the pace in terms of releasing their music. Rather than allow three years to elapse between records, they're considering putting out a series of EPs, as quickly as they can write and record the songs. Aside from that, the group hasn't given much serious thought to a marketing strategy. Instead of plotting out how to increase exposure or planning that fabled European tour, Bad Luck City would rather focus on pushing its musical explorations further.
"This record is a huge leap forward," Merkl explains. "I want the next one to be a huge leap, too. If you're not getting paid for it, there's no point in not taking artistic risks — not to any certain end, but just to push yourself."
"We're an art-for-art's-sake band," Warner chimes in.
The drummer might be half joking, but there's truth in his glib summary statement. While Bad Luck City's anachronistic sound and style may limit its commercial prospects, this doesn't seem to concern any of its six members. "The most important thing," Merkl notes, "is whatever song we're working on right now."