Actually the work of a person rather than a band, My Dad Is Dead’s voluminous output has plainly explored the troubled waters of the soul, both personal and philosophical. Under his open-to-misinterpretation nom de disc, Cleveland (later transplanted to North Carolina) singer-writer-one-man-band Mark Edwards makes music whose appeal lies largely in its matter-of-fact handling of trauma. Growing steadily in fluency and confidence, Edwards, who writes, plays and sings with instrumental and vocal help from a floating gene pool of Cleveland musicians (Prisonshake’s Chris Burgess has also produced the bulk of his recordings), makes records that are as comforting as they are harrowing.
My Dad Is Dead, most of whose songs were indeed inspired by the loss of Edwards’ father, is a compelling, hypnotic debut that ranges from thrashy aggression (“Black Cloud”) to supple melodicism (“Talk to the Weatherman”) to industrial gloom (“Say Goodbye”). The unifying thread is the downbeat lyrics; the sole weak link is Edwards’ flat singing, which improved on subsequent releases.
Peace, Love and Murder and Let’s Skip the Details show considerable growth, both lyrically and musically. The instrumental attack has greater bite, and the latter disc finds Edwards applying subtler melodic devices (on tracks like “Lay Down the Law” and “Boiling Over”) without sacrificing the music’s original tension. The Best Defense is an assemblage of tracks from an unreleased EP, outtakes from Let’s Skip the Details and some 4-track home recordings; though not as essential as its predecessor, it has some fine moments, including three surprisingly harmonious instrumentals.
The Taller You Are, the Shorter You Get (a double LP) is simultaneously Edwards’ most ambitious effort and his most accessible. The expanded format allows for some longer experimental tracks, most of which work out quite nicely; there’s even an almost-danceable instrumental, “Meep Meep.” Elsewhere, Edwards veers relatively close to the musical mainstream (hard rock on “Too Far Gone,” acoustic folk-rock on “Nothing Special”) with considerable success. His lyrics, meanwhile, have grown less morose and more philosophical, and he sings them with new-found expressiveness.
Leaving the Homestead label, Edwards borrowed the Prisonshake rhythm section and released an impressive eight-song double-7-inch, Shine (the four new songs and four rocked-up remakes of previously released material were later expanded by a dozen previously unreleased tracks from the same sessions and elsewhere and reissued as Shine(r) by Emperor Jones/Trance Syndicate), and then a full-length on Scat. Packaged in a magnificent die- cut sleeve (on both LP and CD issues), Chopping Down the Family Tree boasts its fair share of Edwards’ familiar lyrics and dense, metallic instrumentation, but the fog hovering over his head has lifted a little further. The album’s first half revels in gritty guitar sounds and biting lyrics (the title cut proclaims “The strength of the family can be an illusion when built on control and based on collusion”), while the second blooms under the first’s dark waters, reaching a tentative cheerfulness, both lyrical and musical, on “Without a Doubt” and “Shine” (a song not featured on the EP of that name).
The terse, plodding sound of Out of Sight, Out of Mind(credited to MDID rather than My Dad Is Dead, and recorded as a trio with Cobra Verde bassist Matt Swanson and Prisonshake drummer Scott Pickering) regresses into gloomy self-awareness, and Edwards’ lyrics match the shift: the protagonist in “She’s in Love” faces dangerous consequences for indulging herself in that way, “Razor Strap” reveals an abused child and “The Prisoner” proves Edwards knows exactly where he stands. His guitar buzzes angrily throughout, acting as the album’s blood supply, while thundering drum beats are its heartbeat. The only ray of sunshine is the closer, the chiming, nearly anthemic “You Are the One,” one of his strongest songs, where once again Edwards’ lyrical and musical sides are effectively synchronized.
Although he plays with the same musicians on For Richer, for Poorer (absent Burgess’ production), Edwards’ eighth album casts an altogether sunnier glow than Out of Sight, Out of Mind. The grating guitar sounds and throbbing rhythms are in less evidence, replaced by carefully fashioned guitar hooks and gentler beats. There’s still plenty of stylistic variation, and Edwards even broadens the range and delivery of his deadpan vocals (“Way Too Wise”). Largely because he’s pushing his well-defined sound in new directions, For Richer, for Poorer stands alongside The Taller You Are and Chopping Down the Family Tree among MDID’s strongest albums. Edwards spells it all out on “Heirloom”: “I tore myself apart, and picked up all the pieces, and from them fashioned a heart.”
The five tracks on My Dad Is Dead’s entry in the Hello CD of the Month subscription-only series are otherwise unavailable outtakes.