Monday, January 12, 2009

Band to Know: The Scarring Party

MP3: After the War

(This is my review of the Scarring Party show at Lawrence University last weekend, to be printed in The Lawrentian newspaper)

Imagine you are in some nondescript Western town, back in the 1920s. You’re just hanging out down the street, the same old thing that you did last week. All of a sudden a man with black suspenders and a candy cane hat steps off the train with a big briefcase, and looks around mischievously. “Gather ‘round, gather ‘round!” he says with a wink. “I’ve been all over this fine world, and I’m a-gonna sing you some songs.”

This is where the Scarring Party comes in. Hailing from Milwaukee, they describe themselves as a quintet that performs “tuba, accordion and banjo driven end time music that draws on the influence of 20's and 30's music hall, Lomax folkways recordings and 70's punk.”
The group played in the Coffeehouse last Saturday night to a wide-eyed crowd that started off confused but quickly warmed to the band’s music. The instrumentation of the Scarring Party is the first thing that turns heads. Daniel Bullock, the lead singer, had an accordion as his instrument of choice, and he was backed by a banjo, non-traditional percussion including a huge cast iron bell, and hey, who needs a bassist when you can have a tuba instead?

The next thing that sets you back is Bullock’s vocals. Using a special condenser microphone, he drawls and spits out vocals with a thin sound that resembles an old Victrola, a voice meant to be listened to on an old, crackly record player. The group opened with “After the War,” which showcased their vaudeville lyrics right off the bat, with such lines as “With a switch knife he cut his lip/And gave me a rubella red kiss.” They played heavily from their latest album, 2008’s “Come Away From the Light.” Another highlight came with “Leslie Ann Merrimac,” as Bullock crooned about an abusive, loveless marriage – “Leslie Ann Merrimac had bruises all around her neck/ And a silver trail of latch-hooks down her back."

Most of the songs are character studies, filled with violence, hopelessness, and despair, but delivered with a cunning grin and wink that lets you know it’s all just a laugh. The stories that Bullock told between songs were worth the attendance alone, as he talked about dog-boys, vampires, and other oddities. The most memorable introduction went something like this: “This song is about your life. And a little bit about mine. Also it’s about necrophilia…and the downside to it.”

The Scarring Party has shared the stages with some well-known bands, like Margot & the Nuclear So-and-So’s, Tilly and the Wall, Why?, and Daniel Johnston. Last weekend they were introduced by Lawrence’s own Sturdy Beggars, who played a solid opening set. Making it through a few technical difficulties, they showcased their own unique style while playing several songs from their new album “The Saint.”

Even if you don’t like the Scarring Party, and I expect there may be some people out there that don’t, you have to admit that they are original. And in the current music state of everyone striving to sound the same in order to fit in, it is refreshing to hear a group that tosses off expectations and creates their own unique sound. “Come Away From the Light” is for sale on their website (

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