Not all artists can call their music death gospel, and not many would want to. From a marketing perspective, it's a dubious selling point at best. And then there's the whole problem of learning how to sing four-part harmonies.
Happily, Adam Arcuragi & the Lupine Chorale Society — who use the term only half-ironically — are equal to the task. And they'll prove it when they come through town with their secular answer to gospel vocal groups like the Five Blind Boys and Swan Silvertones.
"Yeah, almost all the songs have four-part harmonies," says Arcuragi, a singularly talented singer-songwriter who wishes people would stop calling him a singer-songwriter. "This girl came up after a show one time and said, 'God, that was like being in church without all the baggage.'"
Musically, Arcuragi's tastes run from Bob Dylan to the Flaming Lips, but lately he's been spending a lot of time with his copy of Goodbye Babylon, a six-disc God-driven equivalent to the old Smithsonian Folkways recordings.
"It was put together by some fellas from Georgia State or University of Georgia, I forget which one," says Arcuragi, who grew up in Atlanta. "They were deejays and they realized it was very hard to find copies of gospel music that wasn't on wax rolls or 78s. So they put together this really thorough, wonderful collection of old, old gospel music, you know, like primitive field recordings and stuff like that. Brother Claude Ely has a song on there called 'There Ain't No Grave Can Hold Me.' I've been listening to a lot of that."
Death and gospel notwithstanding, any religious element in the Protestant-raised Arcuragi's music is well concealed, even if the cover of his most recent album might lead you to believe otherwise. Designed to look like the weathered frontispiece of some vintage hymnal, its elaborate typography reads: "The Lupine Chorale Society under the direction of Adam Arcuragi accompanying himself on guitar with voice present to you with song and singing I am Become Joy."
Arcuragi's music, godless though it may be, does convey a gospel-inspired blend of suffering and celebration, a robust mix that sets it apart from the more solipsistic efforts of those bearded guys emoting all over their acoustic guitars. Lyrically, he can get pretty ambiguous — as suggested by song titles like "1981 (or Waving at You as We Part at Light Speed Will Look Like I'm Standing Still)" — but there's no mistaking his preoccupation with death.
Take, as an example, "The Dog Is Dead, Amen," which is as sparsely elegant and evocative as a Nick Drake song. Or "Sin Is Just an Old Archery Term," which strikes a similar chord with its opening lyric: "Wade-walking, wade-walking / The marsh is so high / We can look all night / But I think your dog died."
No matter who you are, Arcuragi says, "you're still gonna bleed the same blood, you're still gonna die." And he's fine with that. Of course, that doesn't account for the artist known as Prince, who's made the decision that he's not going to die.
"Well, he can do whatever he wants," says Arcuragi. "As far as I'm concerned, Prince is infallible."
While many artists find inspiration rummaging through their parent's record collection, Arcuragi says his mom took a more active role in his musical development: "When she figured I was ready, she gave me Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, and then later on for that Christmas she got me the Beatles' Hard Day's Night and MC Hammer's Please Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em. And I remember very specifically, in sixth grade, I got made fun of a lot for listening to the Beatles and the Beach Boys."
The following summer, his classmates came around. Sort of.
"I came back to middle school and all of a sudden, I was still the unpopular guy, but everybody was listening to the stuff that they made fun of me for three months previous! It's unbelievable."
Arcuragi has recovered now, which is good since, after tour's end, it's back into the studio with some of his friends from the band, These United States. This will be his third album, and he plans to go lighter on the guitar and heavier on the vocals and percussion.
"The last record was very strummy, so now I want to focus on the percussive element of everything. There's a lot of really good recordings of a cappella groups that use really strong diaphragmatic breathing, where they actually create the vibrato from their diaphragm."
Arcuragi demonstrates by singing 'Lord, I have found a wonderful savior' in a strangely over-enunciated way, and it begins to seem like death gospel may not be all that different from its sacred counterpart.
"Whatever label you want to put on it, it's that exalting unitive love that really makes something greater than the sum of its parts," he figures. "So it's not like anybody's doing anything necessarily new. They're just telling it in their own way."