They Were: Little Joe Gould
Prior to adopting the revisionist history sound befitting the noir style of a band named Murder by Death or a Titus Andronicus concept album, the Indiana quintet was hailed as Little Joe Gould (the 5'4", 100lb. homeless New York City Harvard graduate who pretended to pen the "longest book even written," An Oral History of Our Time, under the pseudonym Professor Seagull. Or something.) Murder by Death now wears this indie-folk spirit on their sleeve in a way that is at once reminiscent of the Americana musical presentation of Nick Cave, the narrative structure of The Decemberists, and the vocal fables of Tim Kasher of Cursive - a band that MBD once toured with to determine whose cello player made sweet love to their instrument more often.
But at the turn of the millennium - depending on which way you look at it - Little Joe Gould began their journey into homicide by fatality riding a late-wave emo persuasion (the good kind) by combining rhythmic guitar patterns with swirling string movements. This thematically gothic, parlor-rock combination made them then one of the only country western acts in the genre; though lead singer Adam Turla had not yet adopted the southern baritone that now helps define Murder by Death, the influence from the sermons of Pastor Johnny Cash were ever present.
Both bands take the saloon as their pulpit, but Little Joe Gould took their time to preach, allowing deeply resonant post-rock instrumental tracks with slower paces of delivery and thumping percussion tracks, as seen on tracks such as "Those Who Stayed", "Those Who Left", and "Intergalactic Menopause". At the time, Saddle Creek seemed an obvious landing for them: the label with the name of a hypothetical Oregon Trail trading post, featuring similarly eclectic artists with a midwestern bent (with, again, one of whom they had already toured), and hell, they already had a song that seemed better suited on one of The Faint's albums ("I'm Afraid of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf").
Yet though the Omaha brand perhaps best matched both their style and interests, around 2001, Thursday frontman Geoff Rickley took a liking to the group after the two split a bill in their hometown of Bloomington. He soon thereafter signed them to his personal label, with what I imagine was a Godfather offer, where Little Joe Gould would become Murder by Death. Though their first album, Like the Exorcist, But More Breakdancing, was released after taking on their new name, they continued to tour under their old moniker until 2002, as many of the songs came from their original EP.
Though they swapped a name adopted by e.e. cummings poetry and New Yorker profiles on developing bohemian eccentricity for a title referencing a 1978 whodunit spoof starring Truman Capote, their pioneer spirit remains intact through sing-song ballads about whiskey, and, oh, let's say tall-tales of Paul Bunyan's flapjacks. And with those frontier-sized pancakes, Murder by Death was certainly not the autopsy report for Little Joe Gould.