In the 1790s, Micajah “Big” Harpe and Wiley ‘Little’ Harpe were not content with theft, rape, river privacy and highway robbery. They graduated to tying beaten victims to horses then chasing them off cliffs, or murdering them and weighing down the corpses. They’re thought to be the first American serial killers, as if there wasn’t enough death during the American War of Independence!
Suburban Dirts have immortalised the Harpe brothers in an entire album inspired by their misdeeds and victims. Thankfully these macabre activities in the American South are a world away from the band members’ lives in South England. For instance, drummer and co-vocalist David Austin is working on a PhD in philosophy. That perspective fed into the lyrics, resulting in a record that’s epic in scale and cinematic in imagery.
I Want Blood, the band’s third album, explores the time before the cowboy stereotypes we’re so familiar with. Instead, it gets back to the “real frontier stuff.” Yet, it’s not a case of life being cheap. The violent interlopers disrupt domesticity, community and love.
The introduction to The Harpe Brothers Theme is rich and busy from the get-go, but nothing compared to the aural onslaught of the opening line: “We cut them open/carve out their guts/fill their innards up with stones.” The vocabulary may be old-fashioned, fitting the era, but the psychopathy is clear: “the crying wouldn’t stop/I smashed his head in on a rock/and it stops.”
The creeping instrumentation continues around the increasingly horrific lyrics. Ultimately, it’s unclear whether “more than one way to skin a cat” is metaphorical or not. The scratchy violins and guitar work mirror the perpetrators’ state of mind, but the vocals are oddly calm. This is methodical bloodlust leading to a surprisingly compelling song.
There’s an ominously long pause before the next song. Nevertheless, when it comes, Home is simply sweet. Traditional instruments give a homespun impression, like a melodic palate cleaner.
Eli is also calming. Hopeful, even. We hear a simple song of love and promise: “got a diamond ring for the one I love/I ain’t got a lot of things but I got enough/and you never know what you’ve got coming/you can plan ahead but you know nothing.” However, in the context of the opening horror, it seems sadly prophetic not motivationally optimistic. Still, taken independently, it’s gorgeous.
The cinematic nature of the record comes through strongly. The songs are like scenes, deftly introducing us to new characters and motivations. To Dance With You Again is another love song for plain folk. The plaintive refrain of the title is woeful to be sire, but sweetly sung. There’s no sense of violence.
Lost and losing
Still, the darkness of the opener is hard to shake, especially as the songs continually skirt around loss. Lost and Losing has Siobhan Parr singing in Eighties power ballad style: “all heavy hearts and tired bones/I belong here/I’m gonna die here.” Although she’s exhausted and world-weary, she sees hope for the future: “been so long since I felt good I began to doubt I ever could but I got you/I’m gonna keep you.”
Just as the optimism seemed to allay the fears of the first song, Harpe Women is a stark reminder: “he cuts out red tongues/just for fun/to hear them moan.” That dark imagery is set in a gentle melody and breeds a startling realisation: even murderers can love and be loved. Their refrain is mournful: “stop counting scars/what’s left of the kisses?”
In that context, the next song is disturbing. It’s a nursery rhyme with imagery of community breakdown: “the wolf did wait ’til the wall did fall and one by one he ate them all.”
Another traditional instrumental starts out as if to clear the air. However, it turns ominous with strings, cough distant scream, indistinct metal clinks and overall discordance. With murderers stalking the scene, it’s chilling. The title of the song adds to the horror: The Wedding and The Uninvited.
Finally, things start to become clear when we hear from a local vigilante: “Them’s the Harpes and I want them dead.” Evidently, they’ve been going from town to town spreading fear and death. Having survived an attack, he arranges a posse. Tantalisingly, he takes on their traits and language: “I want blood.”
An instrumental surge suggests the passage of time in the search. Then, the results: “I know I am not evil but I have done evil deeds/I took the head of that son of a bitch and I stuck it in a tree…Lord, have mercy on this weakened heart because I don’t regret a thing.” There’s barely time to ponder morality and equivalency as earlier vignettes coalesce. The learning-to-love-again lady from Lost and Losing sings a ghostly reprise of ‘oh, to dance with you again” as he lies down at her graveside to die.
If that doesn’t pull on the heartstrings, we learn about the aftermath: “this ain’t no place like home/the only school is silent.”
Like in all the best thrillers, the horror hasn’t ended. Little Harpe survived and he’s out for revenge. Still, he’s a little more aware of consequences than his brother. With all the shared motivations and shades of grey, it’s not clear which side is singing the regretful love song that comes next. At least until the ‘beautiful feeling’ refrain of the optimistic villager with the diamond ring rises.
Then again, what made the brothers the way they were? Did something happen to their loved ones? Who was singing when? So many questions, you’ll need to listen to the album again!
Not so fast – the kids are alright! Another playground chant strikes up, this time repeating a hopeful line from earlier. This time there’s also a welcome nod to the future: “we’re going back to school tomorrow.”
Where’ There’s A Will is a happy-clappy honky-tonk song of cautious optimism, leading into the epilogue, As You Are, a coda tying together themes, scores and voices.
This Southern Gothic inspired concept album has surprising heart amidst the no-holds-barred savagery. The different musical styles play with emotions and add to the character of a comprehensive record. The creative aspects are eminently successful and deserve to be made into a book, movie or musical – ideally all three!
I Want Blood by Suburban Dirts is out now.
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