Going for broke, with mostly positive results
As part of the promotion tour for his sophomore tour release, Amigo the Devil, the stage name of singer-songwriter Danny Kiranos, talked to Knotfest.com about the albums that changed his life. It is a surreal list, ranging from Converge and Godspeed You! Black Emperor to The Get Up Kids and Fiona Apple. While seeds of this love for genres as varied as extreme metal and emo were present on his debut Everything is Fine, Born Against takes all that underlying weirdness and blows it up into an even more unstable, oddball experience. Sadly, his unconvincing and inconsistent vocals do a disservice to the zany instrumentation and some soaring compositions.
The most telling album from that list was Murder by Death’s, Who Will Survive, and What Will Be Left for Them? Though they’ve mellowed out in recent years, few bands soundtracked the dark side of the Wild West quite as they did on albums like Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon, and In Bocca al Lupo. They exist in the same post-Tom Waits sphere that treads water between gothic, rootsy and orchestral tones that Kiranos is also inhabiting here. It is to the southwest equivalent of what the dark cabaret of acts like Dresden Dolls was to New York: taking old, classic styles like vaudeville and Americana and merging them with modern alternative and indie rock into something slightly vintage, slightly modern, but entirely theatrical and twisted.
Everything Is Fine had its own oddities in the form of gurgling synths on “You Are Perfect Too,” the demented bridge of “Hungover in Jonestown” and the marimba of “The Liars Club,” but its follow-up, Born Against, adds even more strange layers and unsettling sounds. “Shadow” is Amigo’s most twisted song to date, with heavy organ blasts and a scraping sound like a knife across stone similar to Billie Eilish’s “You Should See Me in a Crown.” There’s also the sinister horns and abrasive guitar knots of “Quiet as a Rat” and the manic shuffling riff and final explosion of fuzz and piano on “Murder at the Bingo Hall.” It’s never overwhelming or especially cluttered, as the songs build naturally, and there’s plenty of subtler moments that sizzle with sustained organ or effectively low-key background vocals. Amigo’s composition has also improved, between the final crescendo into the whistling of “Shadow” to the distorted choir closing out “Quiet as a Rat,” and rarely does the extra instrumentation feel superfluous.
Amigo also knows how to handle a stripped-down, more traditional American tune as well. It happened with “I Hope Your Husband Dies” on his debut, and it happens here with “Another Man’s Grave” and especially “Letter From Death Row,” the closer. The guitars are sharp and pretty, and Kiranos feels more comfortable here than when he’s required to belt or really scream. Moreover, it’s in these songs where his writing shines, as he handles the familiar scene of a closing bar where’s he’s drunk out of his mind and imbues it with humor on “Another Man’s Grave” with lines like, “the guy in the corner..wearing more than he drank.” “Letter From Death Row” benefits from never explaining why he is on death’s door, which gives a menace and ambiguity to him wishing a partner the best after he is gone and gives the song some real depth.
Sadly, Kiranos himself remains less compelling. Murder by Death’s Adam Turla had a natural gruffness that fit the blackened musical landscape and subject material, whereas Kiranos is a lot more breathy and high pitched, sounding more like Marcus Mumford than Ward Davis. There are a lot of cool vocal arrangments, especially the simple yet striking humming on the second verse of “Different Anymore,” but Kiranos’s own operatic belting against the soaring violins of “Small Stone” or the sudden cussing in the bridge of “Drop for Every Hour” just feels unconvincing. The vocal fidelity does him no favors here, as he goes from clear to blown-out to reverb-soaked several times in the middle of a song. The rest of the production is fairly solid, but Amigo the Devil is not a versatile enough performer to put it over the top. Born Against is an interesting step-forward that shows Kiranos evolving while maintaining his distinct style, yet he still needs to work on his own performance in addition to developing his already solid compositions and playing.