WILL OLDHAM Joya (Domino)

"Joya" is the first solo album from the mainstay of Palace, one of the burgeoning crop of American so-called new country acts (a roster that would include Lambchop, Smog and the wonderful Lullaby For The Working Class) that seem to have little to do with country, old or otherwise, and lots to do with sadcore bands like Red House Painters and American Music Club, except with more mandolins and fiddles.

Backed by a band that includes the ubiquitous Dave Pajo (Slint, Tortoise, Aerial M), the most startling aspect of "Joya" on first listen is Will Oldham’s voice, a dry, relatively high-pitched and drowsy instrument that sounds a little like Neil Young’s at the depths of one of his ‘downer’ periods (e.g. "Tonight’s The Night"), suggests a degree of Nick Drake folksiness, but mainly conjures up images of a Southern preacher who’s had his fire and brimstone licence revoked. Place it in front of the sparse musical backdrop whittled by Bob Arellano, Colin Gagon and Dave Pajo, and give it parched, not overly melodious tunes to sing called stuff like "Under What Was Oppression" and "Be Still And Know God (Don’t Be Shy)" and the end result is an album that sounds distinctly sepia-tinted.

If it weren’t for the partly electrified instrumentation the music on "Joya" could possibly have come from any time during the last century or so - there’s about as much linking it to 1997 as there is to 1897. Without much in the way of melodic excitement - not a criticism, incidentally - you’re naturally drawn to the lyrics, or whatever you can make of them after they’ve been strangled by that voice (is he really singing about a place called Nostril Falls on "O Let It Be"?). I won’t quote lines out of context, but they seem to resonate with some kind of mystical power, taking words and phrases and twisting them so they seem like disconnected snapshots illustrating half-remembered stories; a little like early R.E.M. lyrics, you get the general impression of a song, without ever being entirely sure of the details. "Joya" is an album that will intrigue, rather than impress, on first listen, and eventually draws you into its shadowy world of dusty melancholy, like some strange amalgam of Portishead and The Flying Burrito Brothers. Recommended, especially for the committed sadcore admirer.

WILL OLDHAM Guarapero Lost Blues 2 (Drag City)

As the title - which references an abandoned album recorded prior to Oldham's 1997 solo debut "Joya" - alludes, this is his second bundle of orphaned songs, drawn from missing singles, BBC sessions, cover versions, the "Guarapero" project and other miscellany. It arguably makes for a more entertaining, if understandably less cohesive, listening experience than his feted last studio outing, under his Bonnie 'Price' Billy nom de tune, "Master And Everyone".

On "The Spider's Dude Is Often There", the drunken sensuality of the lyrics dances woozily with a chorus of country fiddles. The glorious confection of "Gezundheit" begins as a cover of Billy Bragg's "I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night" - for the first two lines at least, before Oldham's vision takes the song wandering to other places entirely - and ends as a recitation of a Sam Walter Foss poem. Melodically and sonically primitive, "Let The Wires Ring" permits the listener to witness Oldham seemingly scratching the song out of his soul, a fractured but impassioned, raw nerved performance. "Big Balls" is a gothic rearrangement of the AC/DC standard, heavy with weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth. It's presumably sufficiently distanced from the original to allow the band to feature in the "special thanks to" section of the credits rather than the "players/writers/recorders" list. (And what is it about earnest Americans with acoustic guitars that compels them towards the AC/DC songbook, given that Mark Kozelek has also spent almost two albums doing similar things?)

"For The Mekons Et Al" and "Stable Will" are featured in swampy live readings that might have benefitted from some remixing to render them a little less, uh, submerged, but the spirit remains undimmed even if the lyrics are not. An elegant, elegiac cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Every Mother's Son" is naggingly reminiscent of Neil Young's "Helpless", possibly not entirely unintentionally given the "Alabama" versus "Sweet Home Alabama" sparring of the early 70s. "No More Rides" has a definite front room acoustic, from the sounds of passing cars to the jangling, Sunday school piano, a wondrous, sad-eyed music that sounds like it's weeping.

"The Risen Lord", with text from the D. H. Lawrence poem, and "Boy, Have You Cum" are rickety synth pop, followed by the sparse, stoic acoustic folk of "Patience" and "Take However Long You Want". By contrast, "Sugarcane Juice Drinker" and "Call Me A Liar" are raucous band performances, heavy on harmonium if not harmony, the latter relocating portions of Steve Miller's "The Joker" to a more backwoods context. An unlisted extra track, hidden "Kid A"-style beyond side four's run-out groove, turns out to be possibly the most experimental moment of the entire set, an aquamarine octopus' garden of sound that gradually unravels into "Apocalypse, No!", formerly glimpsed on the "Joya" album.

"Guarapero Lost Blues 2" sounds great from a distance, yet offers up multilayered levels of meaning the closer you get. It's emotionally complex, aurally beguiling, slow, sad, stately music, of the kind that some of us just can't get enough of.

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy