The Pine Box Boys revive the murder ballad for horrorbilly heads

The name should tip you off right from the get-go: the Pine Box Boys. Now, I don't want to venture any guesses about your mama, but my mama didn't raise any fools, so when I hear the words pine box, I see the words dead body. Then I shudder: caskets creep me out.

Not so for the San Francisco foursome. These long-haired death defiers give the Grim Reaper a nipple twist or two with their waggishly pitch-black tales of murder, misery, and mayhem, and we shouldn't want it any other way. Gallows humor has been around just as long as we as a species have been able to tell our stories, and this raggle-taggle band of bluegrass ne'er-do-wells is a bold keeper of the tradition, knowing exactly how to spin a dark and bloody yarn and still bust a gut while doing it.

So let's consider the pine box: basic, humble, and nothing highfalutin compared to the mind-dizzying, bankroll-sapping array of caskets out there nowadays. It's strictly old-school: no fancy modern gilded inlays or polished brass handles here but rather a nice, solid vintage construction ready for getting the job done. Much like the Pine Box Boys, who — well, they don't do fancy, from what I've seen.

There are no state-of-the-art production techniques on either 2005's Arkansas Killing Time or 2006's Stab! (both Hi Horse), nor are there nods in the direction of any recent, decidedly rockist musical trends. Instead, this largely acoustic quartet wreak unholy havoc from the sounds of their grandpappies' era — and probably even that of their grandpappies' grandpappies. All those banjos and strummed guitars might conjure images of barn dances, but underneath the floorboards lays a trail of dead.

The band — fronted by hillbilly-twanged, wide-eyed maniac Lester Raww — has referred to its singular strain of mockingly malevolent roots music as "darkgrass." I've also seen it described as "Southern horrorbilly," a tag that makes sense in view of the Pine Box Boys' thrilling, ante-upping delivery on subjects such as murder, cannibalism, and necrophilia. Supported by banjo thwacker Possum Carvidi's hot-wired backing vocals, Raww's chronicling of the most sordid of transgressions gives the same sort of glorious release as a slasher flick, assuming one is willing to suspend disbelief. Not that this requires much effort: Raww's whoppers are tautly constructed and often brimming with chuckleworthy turns of phrase, and the frenzied rhythm section of Col. Timothy Leather on bass and "Your Uncle" Dodds on drums provides a rollicking, engaging backdrop for surrendering to such giddy, grisly fictions.

"One look into my eyes, and a wise man would lock up his daughters," Raww sings with devilish charm on Arkansas Killing Time's "When the Moon Moves the Waters," before going on to explain his blood thirst with all of the juicy detailed satisfaction of a Clive Barker or, hell, Nick Cave. The specifics of the beginnings and middles vary from song to song, but they all end the same: someone dies. And someone laughs — at the ridiculous brilliance of it all. The easily offended will miss out on the point of the Pine Box Boys, but hey, they'll miss out on all the fun too.


Feb. 9, 8 p.m., $13

Cafe du Nord

2170 Market, SF

(415) 861-5016

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