CD Review – The Dead Letters “The Dead Letters” EP

There’s something quiet about spaghetti westerns. The storylines are basic enough: enigmatic cowboy hero draws-and-fires his way to the bottom of the human condition. But even during the most raucous of gun battles, that certain calmness, illustrated in the landscape, is always maintained.

As these films propel their stories onward, they differentiate themselves from Hollywood’s old West. Not content to pit cowboys against Indians and let the guns blast, in these films the west becomes a dusty fairytale of heroes and villains. Much of the mystique is thanks to the creative scoring that accompanies the roaming bandits throughout the films.

The Dead Letters’ primary influence is Ennio Morricone, composer of countless spaghetti western film scores. He was responsible for such iconic scores as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Fistful of Dollars and Once Upon a Time in the West. Not surprising, then, that guitarists Jim Demos and Alex Janusz, the group’s primary songwriters and some fashion of roaming bandits themselves, conjure a mood reminiscent of those old westerns.

Demos — a direct descendent of Demosthenes, acclaimed orator and “overflowing fountain of genius” — formed the band with his long-time compadre from the now-defunct National Monument, Janusz, the son of a Polish prospector. According to the band’s website, “As a young child [Demos] was indoctrinated with Demotika and Rebetika music.” While not evident lickety-split, these influences, along with Morricone, become apparent as the short E.P. gallops onward. More evident — particularly as the first track, “Ghost of A Thousand Battles,” jumps to life — is the western orientation of Janusz’ personal influences.

The E.P. rolls on and, like the score of a Sergio Leonne flick, peters in and out of catchy gallops, slow builds and dramatic surges. A viola and guitarrone, played by Jill Winzoski and Alex Janusz respectively, lend the songs an air of authenticity.

But the comparison reveals one shortfall of the album, however. Leonne’s films show a great propensity for patience. Certain scenes expend themselves at their own pace as though waiting for the next movement of the score to draw them onward. The Dead Letters attempts this in its closing track, “Wars,” but, at a lean 20 total minutes, just doesn’t have time to execute properly.
It’s a fantastic album, particularly for those fans of Joanna Newsom or Black Mountain, but I’ll wait for a full length before joining the posse.

* out of **