Bonnie 'Prince' Billy is one of the many tradenames of Louisville, Kentucky singer-songwriter Will Oldham - he has also released albums as Palace Brothers, Palace Music, Palace and even under his own name, and Johnny Cash covered his stately and scary "I See A Darkness" on his last album. "Ease Down The Road" further establishes Oldham as the indie kid's Gram Parsons, his pioneering fusion of country and rock here held up to the dusty, distorting mirror of contemporary alternative culture.
There's much that is great about the music of Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, but it's sufficiently alien to require a degree of acclimatisation. Oldham isn't one of the world's most characterful singers - to be blunt his monotonous croak sounds like Neil Young with a sore throat - and his tunes aren't laden with nagging hooklines. Add to this the raw, unvarnished production (credited to The Continental Op, whoever he/she/they may be) and you have a platter that doesn't exactly welcome the listener with open arms. But persevere and you might begin to appreciate the twisted tapestry exposed within these dozen songs. Perhaps Oldham's closest musical contemporary might be Nick Cave - certainly, they both share a tendency to dwell on the dark side - although much of "Ease Down The Road" makes the Australian's music sound like stadium rock. Pay close attention and you'll be subsumed by the suffocating atmosphere of carnality and threat that permeates these songs - sex and death, in particular, are subjects that Oldham seems to warm to - and the subtle, hidden melodies that wind around it.
This is an album full of incidental pleasures and rarely-exposed feelings. The back cover photograph shows Oldham cross-legged on a back porch, face red with sunset, a guitarist sitting by his side, and although it would be fanciful to suggest that it depicts the actual recording process several tracks are accompanied by a chirping chorus of nocturnal insects. In the famous friend stakes Dave Pajo (once of Slint, The For Carnation, Tortoise, Royal Trux, Aerial M and Papa M) contributes vocals, guitar, bass, percussion, piano and a mixing hand, Todd Brashear (also formerly of Slint) sings and pedals steel and Harmony Korine (author of the film "Kids", director of the equally controversial "Gummo" and "Julien Donkey-Boy" and boyfriend of Chloe Sevigny) adds his voice to proceedings. But these add just a dappling of light and shade across the remarkable music of Will Oldham, whose show this album almost entirely is.
BONNY BILLY More Revery (Temporary Residence)
"More Revery" is a six track import CD of cover versions performed by Will Oldham a.k.a. Bonnie 'Prince' Billy. The source material is drawn from the catalogues of John Phillips, P J Harvey, Bill Withers, The Renderers, John Holt and Tim McGraw, and then immaculately reinterpreted by Oldham in a rather earnest, warm, country-rock style that makes each song indisputably his own. Picking highlights would be churlish: every arrangement here has been assembled with a jeweller's eye for detail and then roughed up by Oldham's backing quartet to give the resulting music the swing and heart it needs to succeed. Nevertheless, particular mentions must be made of his spectral, reverberent version of John Holt's "Strange Things" that floats ethereally between the listener's ears, and Tim McGraw's underdog ballad "Just To See You Smile", just for being so lum'-in-the-throat gorgeous. In fact, the sole criticism that can be levelled at "More Revery" is that there isn't enough of it, the album clocking in at a positively slimline 15 minutes. Otherwise, if you're in the market for some back-porch alt-country crooning, step right up.
BONNIE 'PRINCE' BILLY Master And Everyone (Domino)
The third album to be released by his Bonnie 'Prince' Billy alter ego, "Master And Everyone" might be Will Oldham's sparsest outing yet. Perhaps this is due to it being 'recorded by' Lambchop's Mark Nevers, who, in co-producing that band's last album, "Is A Woman", beat a significant retreat from the big choruses and shiny pop appeal (well, relatively) of their previous outing, "Nixon". Similarly, "Master And Everyone" is a shy, reserved and reticent thing compared to its 2001 forebear, "Ease Down The Road". The whole album conveys a feeling of ancient courtship rituals in country towns, steeped in tradition, emphasised somewhat by the luxuriant, knotted backwoodsman's beard Oldham models on the cover photograph. Every now and then, though, its rustic charm is undercut by thinly veiled salaciousness, as when Oldham suggests, on "The Way", "Let your unloved parts get loved". Musically, too, apart from the sonic vapour trails that thread and slither around many of the tracks and the occasional jarring outbreak of electrified bass or guitar, there's nothing here to suggest these songs, arrangements or even performances aren't a century old. In fact, the most modern things about this record are the almost inevitable Polly Harvey dedication and the barcode.
Like "Is A Woman", "Master And Everyone" is disappointingly underwhelming on first listen. But unlike "Is A Woman", for me at least, it gradually accumulates a kind of primitive, hairshirt appeal, culminating in the quite charming outbreak of long-suppressed jauntiness "Hard Life". And it has to be said that the production and pressing quality are both marvellous, bringing the creak of the back porch into your living room with sometimes unnerving fidelity. I wouldn't take it over the bold, big grooves of "Ease Down The Road", but racked together with it "Master And Everyone" illuminates another fascinating facet of the Oldham enigma.
BONNIE "PRINCE" BILLY Greatest Palace Music (Domino)
In which Will Oldham's Bonnie "Prince" Billy alter ego journeys to Nashville to cover the music of his myriad Palace nom de tunes with the assistance of locals, spreading the results over three sides of vinyl, the fourth bearing a Savage Pencil etching that appears heavily indebted to The Flying Burrito Brothers' Nudie tailoring. These arrangements lend a veneer of Old Opry orthodoxy to the rudimentary lo-fi originals, a slickness not totally undermined by the untutored wobble of Oldham's singing voice - at times it sounds as if the band are playing in the distance to avoid intimidating him. Despite the superficial prettification these songs are still as dense with impenetrable metaphor as ever, kind of a "More Songs About Rivers And Horses".
"Gulf Shores" takes a step outside the honky tonk in the direction of Gram's "A Song For You", albeit arguably more "Streets Of Baltimore" in narrative, a warm breath of pedal steel melancholia. "You Will Miss Me When I Burn" draws strength from "I Am A Rock"-like isolation, with its repeated mantra "When you have no one/No one can hurt you". There's something perversely "Breakfast In Bed"-sensual about "The Brute Choir", and "I Send My Love To You" is a jolly if inconsequential hoe-down. An eerie cloak of foreboding shrouds "More Brother Rides", and "Agnes, Queen Of Sorrow" is almost the quintessential Oldham song, swaying heavily with resignation and disappointment.
Interesting concept though it might appear, the reality of "Greatest Palace Music" doesn't quite match the billing: caught between Drag City spit and Nashville polish the music here sounds oddly neutered. Compared to the glorious, if doomed, experimentation that pulsated through "Guarapero Lost Blues 2", the most recent Oldham entrant to my record shelves, there's something shruggingly so what about the enterprise.
MATT SWEENEY BONNIE PRINCE BILLY Superwolf (Palace/Drag City)
Following last years variable Greatest Palace Music, in which Will Oldham remade and remodelled selections from his back pages with the assistance of Nashville musicians, the Bonnie Prince once again moves further on down the road less travelled. On Superwolf he collaborates with former Zwan guitarist Matt Sweeney if the sleevenotes are to be believed, Oldham provides lyrics and Sweeney the music. (The late author Paul Bowles also provides a few hundred printed words on the subject of cannabis.)
Despite relinquishing his melodic duties, Superwolf is very obviously a Will Oldham product. Perhaps its a sliver lusher than is usual, but given the sparse, grainy nature of much of his output that wouldnt present much of a challenge. Despite itself, its a sultry, heaving work. The physical manifestation of love hangs heavily, sweatily, over this album. Even the choirboy purity of Beast For Thee exudes it. For such a low voltage work songs such as What Are You? are pretty salty, even by Oldhams standards.
Goat And Ram boasts some slightly incongruous-sounding craggy, hard rock crescendos and rippling, Fripp-ian guitar. On the other end of the albums dynamic range, Only Someone Running captures the sound of two people in a room, whistling, playing acoustic guitar and singing, with astonishing clarity. Perhaps the albums centrepiece is the eight minute Blood Embrace. With a long stretch of dialogue snipped from the 1977 film Rolling Thunder, its strongly reminiscent of I Knew These People, from Ry Cooders Paris, Texas soundtrack.
Superwolf is not an album thats in much of a hurry to reveal its secrets and answer your questions. Nevertheless, its as poetic and compelling as anything else in Will Oldhams extensive, spidery catalogue.
BONNIE PRINCE BILLY Summer In The Southeast (Sea Note)
A live album recorded with an enthusiastic but ramshackle electric band that numbers brother Paul and Zwan guitarist Matt Sweeney amongst its ranks, Summer In The Southeast is a strangely charmless record. Perhaps it has something to do with the disarmingly low level at which the vinyl pressing has been cut, despite carrying barely 16 minutes of music a side. Its as if those responsible were striving for intimacy, but the effect is just to distance the listener from the performance.
Despite cutting a broad swathe through Will Oldhams back catalogue, Summer In The Southeast doesnt present his songs in the most flattering light, resulting in a grinding monotony unrelieved by his raucous, wavering singing. Its interesting to hear songs from the sparse, stripped out Master And Everyone album performed by a large ensemble, but the mood frequently becomes muggy, muddled and oppressive when the band kick in. It doesnt help that theyre not fabulously adept at finely modulated dynamics: theyre good at loud, they can certainly do quiet, but the distance between the two has them flummoxed.
May It Always Be manages to cook up some thick, swampy, smoky textures yet remains propulsive and turbulent. Break Of Day is enthusiastic but undisciplined, a ragged mess. Almost inevitably, the assembled cast stumble upon greatness with I See A Darkness a song covered by Johnny Cash, no less and the change is as palpable as its stately, accretive power.
O Let It Be kicks and bucks with a useful aggression missing from its studio equivalent, and Beast For Thee positively shimmers in a guitar haze. Death To Everyone provokes an unlikely outburst of community singing; I Send My Love To You is all rambunctious country pastiche. The closing reading of Ease Down The Road is a rare highlight, knotting its twisted storytelling together with adultery and Southern gentility.
Nevertheless, Summer In The Southeast remains a disappointment. Its as though whatever or whoever makes the Bonnie Princes studio work so frequently alluring didnt get on the bus.
BONNIE PRINCE BILLY/FAUN FABLES The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 24 January 2007
It swiftly becomes apparent why lazy journalists but not me of course, oh no have pegged Faun Fables, a.k.a. Dawn McCarthy, and Will Oldham, with whom she duets throughout the new Bonnie Prince Billy album as the Emmylou and Gram of the modern age. Alone, she sings awkward, gothic back porch folk; punctuated with a leather-booted stomp, she seems to be digging her songs out of the ground such is the physical determination involved. There are moments during her support slot when McCarthy sounds like early Judy Collins, and others that evoke the bloodcurdling yodelling of Agnes Buen Garnas. However, just when you might be tempted to think that shes settled into the comfortable acoustic folk niche that seems to be mandatory for a Bridgewater Hall support act, she performs a Polish song from the 1960s, Carousel With Madonnas, accompanied only by clacking sticks, and then an ancient Greek song interpreted off a vase. Not for everybody, but unsettling enough for us.
When the luxuriantly bearded Bonnie Prince and his backing quartet take the stage he opens with the admission We are in no way accustomed to playing this sort of scene, or words to that effect, and his straggly ensemble do seem to make the smooth, polished surfaces of the Bridgewater suddenly untidy. The impression is only exacerbated by Oldhams habit of performing on one leg, and scanning the audience with mad, staring eyes: whodve put money on him turning out to be the alt.country Ian Anderson? There are moments when the bands performance could charitably be described as ramshackle; as with 2005s Summer In The South East live album, the band squelch all the dynamics from the set, which, for the most part, seems to consist of songs with which Im unfamiliar, or at least songs that are rendered unrecognisable. Its not until Dawns called back to the stage (eventually; despite the audiences assistance at first she cant be found, and the setlist has to be shuffled to overcome her absence) that the evening begins to take flight, with a sprinkling of duets from last years The Letting Go, her often wordless counterpoint the ice cooling Oldhams forest fire.
Master And Everyone is swollen by electricity into something rowdy and powerful, possibly the evenings highlight, and Idea And Deed, from Oldhams own name debut Joya, is an unexpected inclusion. Mentioning that it was a rewrite of a Dick Gaughan song, Oldham expresses regret that he missed Gaughans recent Glaswegian performance of the Handful Of Earth album in its entirety, something he imagined Gaughan undertaking not for the sort of reason the Pixies might have for doing something like that. But for an artist keen to defuse those Emmylou/Gram comparisons, covering The Everly Brothers So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad) whilst darting sidelong glances at your duet partner probably isnt the best way to go about it. Other cover oddities included a double-header of John The Baptists, one by E. C. Ball, the other by John Martyn, and a closing thrash through Willie Nelsons On The Road Again.
A sporadically entertaining evening, then, or maybe Ive just been spoiled recently. Im delighted to have finally seen the man live, having enjoyed his music for nearly a decade (since Kev kindly sent me a copy of Joya to review, in fact), but it seems destined to be filed away as one of my less memorable Bridgewater nights.
BONNIE PRINCE BILLY The Letting Go (Drag City)
The Bonnie Princes first solo studio album of new material in nearly four years seems almost opulent compared to the hairshirt minimalism of Master And Everyone. Hes got plangent, exquisite songs such as opener Love Comes To Me, and the icy warmth of vocal foil and tour buddy Dawn McCarthy to breathe (a strange form of) life into them. Oh, and charming moments such as the audio verite that closes the aforementioned, a bit like those that Captain Beefheart (or maybe Frank Zappa) peppered across Trout Mask Replica.
These songs might be among Will Oldhams most distinctive and approachable yet; the likes of Cursed Sleep have a looming, brooding power thats quite different to his traditionally ascetic aesthetic. No Bad News is driven by the insistent hustle of the backwoods telegraph, supple arrangements clothed by deftly cut string lines, and he throws some Robert Johnson shapes on the bluesy Cold & Wet. Lay And Love is a gentle tangle of vocals, acoustic guitars and what might be the most human(e) drum programming Ive ever encountered. The Seedling thrums with incipient apocalypse, Nick Cave style, but its nowhere near as haunting as the frosty fairytale Then The Letting Go, Dawns vocals hovering above the song like snow capping distant hilltops. I Called You Back is lovely too, the albums slow, steady, languorous kiss-off.
Theres nothing particularly poppy about Bonnie Prince Billy, but nevertheless The Letting Go is almost certain to settle as the album youd pick to introduce a newcomer to his music. It demonstrates all of his qualities, but sweetens out its sometimes oppressive monotony. A good one, in other words.
BONNIE PRINCE BILLY I See A Darkness (Domino)
Will Oldhams first album released under his Bonnie Prince Billy nom-de-tune, I See A Darkness is often touted as his masterpiece, a suggestion underlined by the fact that hes recently taken to performing it in concert in its entirety. It certainly shaves off the more atonal, hair-shirted aspects of its predecessor, Joya, Oldhams given-name solo debut, but its still some way from pop music.
The affable, tranquilised country music of the opener A Minor Place throws the listener off the lyrics rotting stench, dotted with references to maggots, tombs and gullets; its almost like the work of an easy listening Nick Cave, with all fire and brimstone extinguished (or at least restricted to designated fire and/or brimstone areas). The near-biblical wailing at the climax of Nomadic Revery (All Around) is somewhat at odds with lyrics such as All around a left buttock/And all around a right/All around your every curve/Im going to go tonight. The title track is the albums, and maybe also Oldhams, high watermark after all, it was later covered by the man in none-more-black himself, Johnny Cash, during his Rick Rubin years heavy with harm and stately with sorrow. Another Day Full Of Dreads unconvincing nursery rhyme of a chorus (Ding! Dong! A silly song) fails to leaven the bleak sentiments of its verses. The albums probably at its most conventionally rockist during Madeleine-Mary, which is to say still not very. A broken-backed stumble of a melody, its lyrics, as with practically every other song here, are opaque and oblique with mystery. More lurching than swaggering, on Today I Was An Evil One the twinkle of devilry in Oldhams delivery is supported by a gently unkempt brass accompaniment. Like so many of these songs, Black seems like an account of a man grappling with the demons that threaten to choke off his humanity, a commentary from some terrible kind of psychic torment (or tournament).
As an album, these back porch murder ballads have a definite, musty cohesion. Utterly honest and completely unadorned, the album has to stand or fall on the strength of its songs, because theres nothing else no flash production or flamboyant musicianship to prop it up. However, they also emphasise how much his subsequent albums have opened out the claustrophobic aesthetic found here, shedding a little light on this darkness to audible benefit.
BONNIE ‘PRINCE’ BILLY & THE CAIRO GANG / TREMBLING BELLS Manchester Cathedral, 3 August 2010
Trembling Bells seem sorta like Mazzy Star meets Espers, playing a kind of deeply English wyrd folk with some of that molasses-slow lysergic glaze ladled on top. They even have their own Sandy Denny figure in luxuriantly-haired vocalist/guitarist/keyboard player Lavinia Blackwall. However, proceedings take a turn towards the kinetic when they’re joined for one song by the Bonnie Prince, the adrenaline jolt his appearance provides lingering on for a song they claim to have written under the influence of Bruce Springsteen (albeit resulting in something that sounds more like it was written under the influence of Belle and Sebastian). Somewhat atypically, their fine set climaxes in a tune that sounds like Stereolab attempting to cover “White Light/White Heat”.
Lavinia reappears as an honorary member of The Cairo Gang, Will Oldham’s current backing ensemble, his and their set alternating selections from this year’s rather good, quietly subversive “The Wonder Show Of The World” album with, um, others. Possibly more than ever before, Oldham’s lyrics have been pared of chronology and geography, barely leaving anything to anchor them to any particular century. When, in “Troublesome Houses” , he sings “They can’t find me/They don’t have my number” the conditioned 21st century thoughts immediately presume he means a phone number, but nothing in the song confirms this as Oldham’s intention; it could, after all, be the more era-agnostic house number he’s referring to. What’s also apparent on seeing “The Wonder Show Of The World” material performed live is that whilst on record his arrangements might appear to ramble, hearing them in concert demonstrates how precisely controlled they must be to be played with any kind of precision, each gliding rise and swooping dive mapped out to the second.
Highlights include “Go Folks, Go”, featuring a mischievously French-accented voice of God, and “That’s What Our Love Is” (and yes, magisterially does he sing the infamous line “The smell of your box on my moustache” in this house of worship, without sounding at all smutty). Idiosyncratic as ever, though, he saves all those greatest non-hits for an encore medley where, bookended by a cover of The Everly Brothers’ hit “The Price Of Love”, we’re treated to the briefest fragments of, amongst others, “Madeleine-Mary”, “Master And Everyone”, “(Keep Eye On) Other’s Gain” and “May It Always Be”.
Oldham and confreres strike the best balance of sound and song I’ve yet heard in this august venue; he sounds like he belongs here, which is a pleasant surprise given that he opened his last Manchester gig, in the plush, acoustically correct environs of the Bridgewater Hall, with the observation that “We are in no way accustomed to playing this sort of scene”. Nevertheless, there’s still something slightly unsatisfying about the evening. The band play fabulously and Billy’s high, keening mountain man wail never misses. Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if once in a while he played a sheer, unabashed crowd-pleaser?
BONNIE ‘PRINCE’ BILLY Lie Down In The Light (Domino)
Is there such a thing as typical Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy album? It’s tempting to suggest that there is. After all, he’s been a model of consistency over his near two-decade recording career. Nevertheless, it seems wrong to attempt to consign a cheerful and engaging work such as “Lie Down In The Light” to the same pigeonhole as, for example, the rural gothic of “I See A Darkness”.
Exquisitely recorded by Lambchop’s Mark Nevers, with instrumental contributions from several other members of that band, this 2008 album finds the Bonnie Prince as intent as ever on chipping away at artifice and anything that might represent a convenient chronological or geographical hook. With its jarring introductory guitar chords and Oldham’s borderline yodelling, “So Everyone” sounds uncannily like Neutral Milk Hotel. “For Every Field There’s A Mole” is a rural saunter that incongruously edges onto both Dixieland jazz and murder ballad territory, “(Keep Eye On) Other’s Gain” is the mountain music equivalent of twitching suburban net curtains, “You Want That Picture” a cheerily deflatory boy/girl duet describing a relationship bursting apart at the seams, kind of “I Ain’t Got You Babe”. “Where Is The Puzzle?” kicks up an almost Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young-style ruckus, as wound up as “Willow Trees Bend” is abstract and distended.
“Lie Down In The Light” is another good-to-great Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy album, but one that might have fallen victim to its creator’s own dependability. Just as it’s hard to imagine which of its dozen tracks are more or less deserving of a place on some fictional future Bonnie Prince retrospective, it’s difficult to make a convincing case for purchase of “Lie Down In The Light” over any other entry in his fine and extensive back catalogue.
BONNIE ‘PRINCE’ BILLY & THE CAIRO GANG The Wonder Show Of The World (Drag City)
Well, after musing elsewhere that there’s probably no such thing as a typical Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy album, it seems as though his latest, “The Wonder Show Of The World”, might be as good a representative of the field as any other. Archaic from the first, songs such as “Troublesome Houses”, “Teach Me To Bear You” and “With Cornstalks Or Among Them” are fashioned from a kind of Amish version of Americana. Music that rejects the trappings of technology and celebrity, much of “The Wonder Show Of The World” foregrounds long, convoluted melodies that encircle the patient listener’s attention.
There’s a greater variety and scope to the music here than is normally attempted on a Bonnie Prince album. “The Sounds Are Always Begging” is deliciously inventive, musing on music, marriage and mental health. The lazy backporch blues of “Go Folks, Go” is redolent of the sardonic yet domesticated Dylan of “New Morning” in general and “If Dogs Run Free” in particular. The album’s centrepiece, “That’s What Our Love Is”, begins as Oldham’s conception of a soft rock ballad, kinda like a tricksier Bread tune, and culminates in him singing ecstatically about “The smell of your box on my moustache” against a wall of Bee Gees-styled harmonies. Sagging somewhat in its wake, “Where Wind Blows” and “Someone Coming Through” both stumble without direction, but the impish mischievousness of “Kids”, contrasting somewhat with its stern, spooked lyrics, redeems proceedings with its spiralling early Leonard Cohen-esque acoustic guitar figures.
Generally great, then, and one of my albums of what might prove to be a less-than-stellar year. If you’re considering investigating the tangled thicket that is the Will Oldham discography, this is as sensible a place to begin as any.
BONNY BILLY & THE PICKET LINE Funtown Comedown (Sea Note)
Typical of the good-natured but maddeningly undisciplined sprawl that is the Will Oldham discography, “Funtown Comedown” is a live album recorded with young bluegrass band The Picket Line, released quietly in the US on vinyl and as a download in late 2009. It scoops up the man’s entire catalogue and shakes out selected highlights reworked pretty successfully as raggle-taggle bluegrass numbers.
It’s difficult to resist being swept up by performances as powerful as the likes of “The Glory Goes / Wolf Among Wolves”, with its howling pack chorus. The Picket Line can do elegant restraint when called for, though, as “Lay And Love” demonstrates. Covers of Ralph Stanley’s “Hemlocks And Primroses” and Merle Haggard’s “Rambling Fever” (its opening rich, resonant thrum of acoustic bass a tactile delight) blend seamlessly into the setlist, a credit to the skill with which the Bonnie Prince’s compositions have been overhauled. Repeatedly the attentive audience wait for the last notes to fade away and radiate before hollering their approval.
Despite the somewhat idiosyncratic musical and lyrical content of the source material, there’s nothing contrived about “Funtown Comedown”’s freewheeling genre splicing. This is vibrantly alive, raucous music making, a heartwarming antidote to plastic ProTooled perfection. It’s a shame, though, that this generally excellent-sounding album has been sabotaged by an amateurish pressing, my copy being warped and peppered with ticks and pops.