Johnny Cash released a box set several years ago called Love, God, Murder, three discs exploring the trilogy of basic truths in which much of the world's musical, literary, and human spheres are bound. On this brief and affecting new split EP, Julie Doiron and Okkervil River attack love and murder with alternately lilting and menacing aplomb; the heavenly third makes itself known in Doiron's strong, tender voice and Will Sheff's (of Okkervil River) understatedly profound lyricism.
The first half of the album belongs to Doiron, formerly of Eric's Trip and lately of her own blossoming but limited solo career. Perhaps this record will garner her more attention stateside (she's Canadian), but the small pressing on Acuarela and the limited draw of Okkervil River (insanity, as last year's Don't Fall in Love With Everyone You See was chock-a-block with golden country hits) don't seem like platinum guarantees. Still, those who do pick up the disc might be spurred to track down Doiron's earlier records; her five songs, all similar in tone and quality, all recorded at home with vox and guitar, are sweet lullabies about home and longing.
"The Sweetest Eyes," which opens the EP, finds the narrator (presumably Doiron herself, judging by the intimacy of these tracks) testifying to the empathetic power of the love she's found: "When you laugh I'm over the moon/ But when you cry, I cry too." Not stunningly literate fare, but the feeling is there, and Doiron's voice fills in the gaps. With a home-style phrasing that recalls Lucinda Williams at her most contemplative and belies Doiron's northern roots, this crackly, very real voice adds a lot of sadness to her half of the disc.
The mournfulness carries over into Okkervil River's first track on the EP, "He Passes Number Thirty-Three," which is also the best song on the disc. Sheff's use of common-language speaking and a modern vernacular has always made his songs stand out; he has an understanding, like Bob Dylan and Conor Oberst before and after him (not, coincidentally, the first time those two names have been put in the same sentence) of how to best exploit common speech in a song to connect with his listeners. His lyrics, printed out in paragraphs in the liner notes, actually read like paragraphs. "The morning with coffee was snowy and sweet, and there was this small, snow-white dog who was barking at our feet." It reads as well as it rhymes, and sounds even better projected by Sheff's smooth, comfortable voice. Subtle touches from a Hammond B-3 accentuate the tremors in his voice, and the climactic build to a dramatic release of fiercely strummed guitars does a fine job showcasing Sheff's other strength: melodies that sound sweet and unsettling simultaneously.
Okkervil's other three offerings deal overtly with murder, with as much enthusiasm as their previous murder ballad, "Westfall," from Don't Fall in Love. That song's strength lay in its characterizations, much the same way that the EP's "A Leaf" grabs the listener: "Jeremy Lee at an ice-creamery on the evening of October 10 lost 55 dollars and 70 cents, was shot twice in the chest and again in the head. The police found him dead in the walk-in." The too-sad tale of religion's powerlessness in the face of death could be the strongest appearance of God on this record, and it's hardly the mention Cash gave the good Lord in his box set. But the murder is fierce enough, and the love is strong enough, and the longing painful enough, that this EP, as a whole, feels like the whole shebang.