Skip this Beat? I wouldn’t. 2010’s best Chicago album (thus far)
Sometimes exceptional music is created under the most difficult of circumstances. That appears to be the case for Chicago indie band Puerto Muerto, composed of married musicians Tim Kelley and Christa Meyer. Hinted at in press materials and more fully explained in this Daily Herald piece, the couple’s marriage hit a rough patch when making its latest album “Drumming for Pistols.” Fortunately Kelley and Meyer were able to channel their strife into concocting an alluring affair of swampy Southern rock and Euro-flavored folk. Unfortunately, “Pistols” looks to be the band’s last album. According to the Herald, after nearly a decade of making music together, the couple is calling it quits, not just professionally, but as a couple as well.
It’s exceptionally sad to hear when a band boding so much promise comes to an end, particularly in the case of Puerto Muerto. Meyer’s cool siren-like wailing goes down so nicely contrasted with Kelley’s fiery rasp, as does her rousing drum work to his bluesy guitar picking. But there’s no point in mourning too much when there is so much to celebrate in “Pistols.”
Most clearly evocative of Nick Cave, Kelley and Meyer’s musical matrimony nevertheless works on its own terms. Album opener “Song of the Moon” kick starts with Meyer’s cooing vocals layered atop measured guitar and drum work. It’s like a soup being brought to a simmer – you can sense the band’s eager to erupt, but the restraint works wonders. The spellbinding effect works again on downbeat jam “Vermillion Sky,” and on songs where Kelley takes lead to Meyer’s chorus, such as the dirty, damning “Tamar,” the beautiful alt-country jam “Settle Down Belinda,” and the drum-free, macabre lullaby “Seven Souls.”
The band does bust out, sonically speaking, on the rousing title track, the dust-kicker “Tanze” and the circus-like, tuba-enhanced fever dream “Beautiful Women with Shining Black Hair.” And thematically, Puerto Muerto busts out as well, although at times its baroque ambitions almost go broke. “Arcadia” is the most telling example – a theatrical anthem dancing on the tightrope between compelling instrumentation and campy lyrics about “princes stealing from the thieves” and a place “where men are strong and mighty.” But even on this track it’s hard to resist the drama of the non-nonsense guitar and Meyer’s bizarre, horn-like work on the chorus.
Aside from Meyer’s stunning bell ringing and Bright Eyes-contributors Tiffany Kowalski’s cinematic string work on “The Bell Ringer,” the most arresting songs on “Pistols” are the most grounded and personal, and they seem to be particularly telling given the couple’s strife. Kelley’s nostalgic “Little Recourse” conjures images of a romantically idealized, mysterious woman – idealized of course, because Kelley can’t have her anymore. Kelley’s anguish blossoms on the deceptively sweet-sounding, bitter “Hurting Now,” where he sings, “But I/I still feel for you./Even if it ain’t pretty/It will have to do.” And Meyer in turn sings of bittersweet sorrows on the fittingly-titled album closer “Goodbye to the End”: “Goodbye/We left it without a word/The pleasures of yesterday/Fade like air.”
By all means, risk listening to “Drumming for Pistols,” even if that means forming a newfound appreciation for a band you will most likely never hear from again. Better to have loved and lost than to not have the chance to love Puerto Muerto at all.
Below is a music video to Puerto Muerto’s song “Hurting Now.” Warning: NSFW.