This St Louis-formed, Chicago-dwelling funster duo are regularly likened to all music’s great laughing boys and girls, from Gustav Mahler on down, through Edith Piaf and Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave and the rest. And there’s certainly a shared aesthetic with some of those scary bedfellows.
Puerto Muerto have a sense of theatre, without playing music that’s overtly theatrical. Then again maybe it’s a more cinematic vision. It would be easy to imagine the twosome as Weimar cabaret by way of the old West, but with only occasional – and usually subtly effective – instrumental embellishments aside, they’ve been conjuring this acoustic gothic desert music over four albums now, armed with little more than a guitar, voice and some drums.
I Was a Swallow is a collection of lonely late night songs. The bar is shut – you’ve had enough anyway, so put your money away – the lights are down, and a clipped guitar gently chugs along, while a female voice that’s something like a less anguished, folksy Polly Harvey, intones mournfully over the top. She could be stroking the hair of another lost soul with one hand while concealing a kitchen knife in the other.
Puerto Muerto are a band whose part exploits include an imagined soundtrack to Tobe Hooper’s riotous 1974 backwoods horror The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and an earlier opus entitled Your Bloated Corpse Has Washed Ashore. Damn right they have a wicked sense of humour. Their name translates literally as ‘dead port’, but was originally intended as a name for a ‘pirate bar’ they had planned to open.
The more you immerse yourself in the songs of I Was a Swallow, the more you feel you’ve known them all your life. On Gone Too, Christa recites a straightforward tale that, taken at face value, is a lament for a lost love. But it carries an unspoken menace that resonates much deeper. The similarly titled Gone is rather more blunt in its sentiment, but delivered in Tim Kelley’s broken tones, conversely carries less threat. Put the two voices together, as on the swaying Best Friend, with Christa lending a harmonious hand to his cracked whine and there’s a beautiful friction.
Ultimately it’s what Puerto Muerto leave out, rather than what they put in, that shines these golden nuggets up so, and makes the music feel so ancient, sinister, and still surprisingly, so universal. These are simple songs, as if The Handsome Family put away the Edgar Allen Poe, laid in bed all day and just did the elemental stuff. An early contender for murderous love album of the year.