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The Minstrels - Our Cruel Demise

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Artist: The Minstrels

Album: Our Cruel Demise

Label: Klem North Records

Review date: Aug. 20, 2006

The Minstrels’ Jeff Curtin apparently has a thing for wounded bodies: the cover of his group’s debut album, Our Cruel Demise depicts a wounded man bandaged to the point of mummification, while his songs speak of immersing oneself in boiling water, being gutted, and gnawing upon a raw heart. It’s bleak stuff, and perhaps sounds rather extreme on paper, but Curtin turns such squalid subject matter into surprisingly compelling goth-folk.

Curtin and bandmates Lauren Bohrer (accordion and saw) and Rob Grenier (guitar) build their songs off a core of acoustic instrumentation, often augmented by somber synths and drenched in heavy sheets of reverb. A dark, brooding atmosphere pervades Our Cruel Demise: the more forceful tracks sometimes evoke the Black Heart Procession, while the gentler acoustic ones suggest the ghostly folk of Marissa Nadler. The lyrics, aside from those about dismemberment, take a similar tone, and are equal parts gothic imagery (queens, castles, and candles) and pained romanticism.

While the occasional droning goth bombast (“Spider Me Well”) is effective enough, the subtle acoustic tracks are the most impressive here, coupling simple, somewhat naïve melodies with devastatingly bleak lyrics: “Melt Into the Bed” must be the prettiest song ever written about how old people should just give up and die (“You’re sure that all the ones you love have come to want you dead”), while the title track draws upon fairy-tale tropes to convey romantic angst (“You capture boys, you drain them in your well”). Curtin’s voice is particularly suited to delivering such messages: in his lower register he sounds unsure, agonized and somewhat sinister, while in his high range he bears a strong resemblance to Wayne Coyne undergoing torture (not necessarily a bad thing).

The Minstrels’ “darkness,” overwrought as it may seem, owes its impact to a rare directness and sincerity. The eerie atmosphere of Our Cruel Demise, while conjured with rather stock tools (a warbling saw, deep reverb, and anguished vocals), is free of the theatricality and “cleverness” one might expect (think The Decemberists). There is no irony here, and more importantly, the band finds a sound that successful avoids the pitfalls of outworn signals (i.e., using clichéd tactics to create a desired mood) and contrived sentiment. Curtin’s conviction is clear, and allows his music, bleak as it may be, to be taken seriously.

By Michael Cramer

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