The Morbid Fixations of Charming Disaster
Brooklyn duo brings a taste of death in April
Is there anything more metal than the myth of Osiris? The story of the Egyptian god of the dead involves dismemberment, a golden phallus, resurrection and domination of the underworld. Charming Disaster aren’t a metal band, but they wrote a song about Osiris that could work well for a death metal outfit. The Brooklyn-based guitar-ukulele-and-vocals duo have a loose narrative conceit that keeps their songs zeroed in on death, crime, myth, suffering, the supernatural and other dark subject matter. Charming Disaster release a new record, Cautionary Tales, this month, and it further explores their interest in unfortunate events, morbidity and magic.
I spoke with the band members, Ellia Bisker and Jeff Morris, by phone from New York City last week. Charming Disaster play Common Grounds in Greensboro on Wednesday, April 19.
The “Osiris” song is from Charming Disaster’s 2015 release Love, Crimes & Other Trouble. And the forthcoming record has its share of lyrics inclined to ancient stories, with one song, “Selene and Endymion,” about the sleepy seduction of the mythological couple, and another called “Ragnarok,” about the Norse myth of the doom of the gods. (“Maybe the world will fall apart/Maybe the crows will come and peck away your heart,” goes a line from that one.)
The lyrical themes get a possibly counterintuitive musical treatment, with songs of the looming apocalypse set to folk-tinged Vaudeville-style tunes, like Victorian parlor songs kissed with gypsy jazz, cabaret and an arty eschatological vibe. Gentle swaying ukulele, guitar and vocal harmonies don’t automatically conjure themes of ritual sacrifice, spiritual shipwreck and ghosts. Both Bisker and Morris have other musical projects, typical of the always-playing, always-collaborating ethos of many working musicians and songwriters these days. But Charming Disaster is getting a greater share of their attention as the duo prepare to promote the new record and think ahead to future projects.
The two arrived at Charming Disaster as a sort of songwriting exercise. In kicking around shared areas of interest, Bisker and Morris realized they had an overlapping fondness for things like the creepy death-addled illustrations and writings of Edward Gorey, the similarly morbid fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, and the grim take on urban living, justice and romance portrayed in film noir. In the past Charming Disaster has touched on elements of girl group pop, lurching circus music and old time. The new record was made with the aid of a multi-instrumentalist drummer, who helped give the material hints of a rock-band underpinning in places, like on the slinky spy-theme post-punk of “Days Are Numbered.” If the songwriting smarts, theatrical tragicomedy and the vocals unify the songs, Bisker and Morris still hop and skip around a little stylistically, as when they slide into “Infernal Soiree,” a dark velvet waltz that sounds like a set piece for a Lemony Snicket book or a Tim Burton film. Sometimes Charming Disaster sound like the music that Pugsley and Wednesday Addams might have made after listening to the Decemberists, Squeeze and some Chopin.
While Bisker and Morris talk about Charming Disaster as a group whose material is about love, death, crime, mythology and the paranormal — that’s a pretty broad umbrella, if you think about it. And, ultimately, the duo doesn’t get unduly hung up on making sure the material fits into their thematic rubric. They recorded a nice cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” for instance, a song that does allude to old myths and pillaging, but which might not strike one as being morbidly fixated.
“Anything that we both like, that’s fair game,” says Morris. “It just happens to mostly be in this darker bent.”
Still, the guiding principle forces the duo to focus their songwriting efforts.
“We think about limitations and parameters a lot,” says Bisker. “We find it really helpful to be able to narrow it down.”
And because the songs have a kind of narrative throughline, they’re very far from confessional first-person songwriting that explores the depths of one’s personal emotions. There are possibilities open to some of the characters within the tunes.
“We absolutely discuss and debate a lot of these story lines,” says Bisker.
The band’s songs seem like a natural fit for musical theater. And Bisker says their next project is a song cycle inspired by the life and work of pioneering scientist Marie Curie.
Cautionary Tales ends with “String Break Song,” a strangely comforting and fitting ode to the natural order of decline, the way of all flesh, the destined expenditure of our vital resources, a kind of lilting pop lullaby about the demise of organic matter and the inescapable extinguishing of our flames. Tension, erosion, and death are all at the heart of life, it seems. “Everything breaks down eventually/It’s all just a matter of entropy/Thermodynamics and gravity/ We’re all gonna fall in the end,” goes one verse. “You can’t make sparks without friction, or music or love or nonfiction.”
Bisker says the thematic focus and the collaborative nature of it gives Charming Disaster’s songwriting process a unique quality.
“When it works, it feels like being part of a bigger organism,” says Bisker.
Wanna go? Charming Disaster play Common Grounds (602 S. Elam St. in Greensboro) on Wednesday, April 19. Visit commongrounds.coffee for more info.