I have a problem when it comes to discovering an infectious new tune. I’ll play it over and over until I murder it, only to stop when family and friends intervene. If only I could allow the music to breathe, exhale and be savored for another day, I might find time to delve into the back catalogue of so many bands I’ve grown to love. Truthfully, I hadn’t put much thought into this serial song-killing pattern until the recent release of Bard and Mustache’s Bitter Painter EP. From my first listen to the track “More Where That Came From” on WSLR 96.5, I admit — I was hooked and hooked and hooked.
What had me at hello? Perhaps it was the song’s cold, metallic synths coupled by scratchy cello strings, creating a sexy, sinister sound. Perhaps it was singer Erin Murphy’s eerie and striking vocals, something I’ve grown fond of due to her dark vibrato — a woman willing to track mud through the realm of ugly to reach snow-white heights.
Murphy’s local music roots trace back to The Equines, a magnetic band that seemed to stop in full gallop on the cusp of something great. For reference, listen to “Unleash The Massive Attack.” There were hints of punk, folk, Breeders, Pixies and early They Might Be Giants combined with elements of tropical rock. An indie wet dream, the sound was hard not to love. Then it was gone, or worse, in limbo. The Equines’ Dali-esque ringleader Greg Ferris began playing fewer shows and Murphy began this very musical project with new beau Greg Bortnichak. Ferris formed Cats in The Basement.
My secret: I wasn’t thrilled. I had childhood flashbacks of Annie Lennox taking a respite from Eurythmics in the ’90s and I was a hot little mess. This time it was worse, though, because it was as if Lennox had left before the release of Savage, minutes before the nervous breakdown she needed to create such a masterpiece. In sum, I was waiting for Murphy to either a) enter a crisis unit or b) release an Equines full-length. Either would have been epic and taken the band to the next level.
So where does that leave Murphy on the new Bard EP? Well, her signature torture tag — full of memorable moans and groans — is still intact, as if every rock in every rocky relationship continues to hurl stones at her chords. Yet with Bitter Painter, we hear a new element to Murphy’s vocals: hope.
Perhaps that’s what mixing love and music can do. Bortnichak must have touched the right keys. There’s more of a whisper to Murphy’s words, more sexual prowess — the sound of a woman comfortable with the body of music she’s become. She’s fine-tuned her vocals, losing jagged edges for gelled tones. Bitter Painter finds Bortnichak complimenting her voice, matching her heartache by trying to make sense of it. On “More Where That Came From,” Bortnichak’s voice acts as the eye of the storm before a series of distorted lightning cello strings and choir-like vocals provide a stirring orchestral finish.
Forget what you know about Bard and Mustache. This is no longer a quiet folk act featuring a cello. The lengthy EP opener “I Do” finds the duo angrily professing “I don’t care” repeatedly until admitting they actually do “for you.” It’s the first of many tricks here, warranting the lengthy (and not immediately accessible) track a good listen as it treads into the land of Arcade Fire and The White Stripes, featuring cellos masquerading as electric guitars. Rather adventurous, it plays like a risk-taking builder, featuring an abundance of experimental elements such as ghostly piano keys that will hopefully come full circle on the full-length. The EP title track “Bitter Painter” acts like a happier spinoff, complete with moments of romantic bliss woven into the duo’s harmonies, featuring lyrics like, “When you move with me / I feel like an avalanche or a tsunami.’ Often, the track takes on the feel of a Broadway musical, heart-wrenching until a heartwarming close.
In sum, the Bitter Painter EP finds Bard on the brink of something that could pull the duo in three entirely different directions. Will Bard be able to pull the courageous listener in without swallowing them with too many frantic strokes cluttering the big picture — the love they’ve found? Ultimately, that will be the band’s test on the full-length. Still, as long as Bard is willing to walk the line between catchy, crafty and cathartic, those listening should be more than grateful to stroll beside this poignant duo.