Saddle Creek

“Bystanders, stop that gawking,” Ted Stevens sings on “Song of the Scaffold,” the closing cut on Mayday’s new Bushido Karaoke. “You act like you never seen a dead man in love.” Yeah—and so what if the song’s viciously hanged narrator reattaches his own head and then walks back home with his girlfriend? The self-professed goal of the Nebraska band’s third and latest long-player is to hark back to the “teenage death ballads” of the ’50s and ’60s. And though the more morbid of Bushido Karaoke’s 14 countrified tracks may be more “Joe Bean” than “Leader of the Pack,” the skull-and-crossbones theme certainly comes across if you listen closely enough. Question is, Should you bother? Stevens, late of the chamber-pop outfit Lullaby for the Working Class, is a less-than-graceful lyricist. He burdens the boozy piano of slow-dance opener “Pelf Help” with lines like “Now that you foreclosed on the selfless times/Your poetry, once a thing of substance, has fallen so sadly behind.” He resorts to oof!-inspiring wordplay such as “surly gates” in the bar-of-the-damned-themed “Standing in Line at the Gates of Hell.” He puts the word “Blues”—and parentheses!—into two titles in a row. but fortunately, the music is usually so much fun it overwhelms the words, even on the covers. With former Lullaby bandmate Tiffany Kowalski on strings, Pat Oakes on drums, and Dan McCarthy handling most everything else from banjo to stand-up bass, INXS’s “Old World New World” gets a jovial bluegrass makeover and Gillian Welch’s mournful “I’m Not Afraid to Die” is transformed into a rollicking honky-tonk. There are bursts of energy throughout the album’s efficient 37 minutes, but for those who prefer their dirges more downbeat, there’s also the serenely hymnal “Billy Boy Blues (Day of the Dead Blues)” and “Burned My Hands,” a barely beating elegy to a romance with a growly, Leonard Cohen– esque backing vocal. It’s one of Bushido Karaoke’s most effective tracks, thanks in large part to Stevens, who for once keeps things howler-free: “I burned my hands trying to pull down a star for you,” he drawls. “I couldn’t understand what I was doin’ that for.” Teenage death ballad? Nah—just the sound of a grown-up gettin’ over it. —Tricia Olszewski