April 29, 2009
Quirky indie-Appalachian warbler Will Oldham recently unveiled his twelfth release under the moniker Bonnie “Prince” Billy. The new record, entitled Beware, picks up on the playful country embellishments of last year’s Lie Down In The Light, but it almost takes a few steps backwards conceptually.
While he has made no qualms about his current love affair with traditional country and folk music, Will Oldham teeters a bit too close to the edge at times on Beware. Whereas last year’s exceptional Lie Down In The Light showcased this new infatuation honestly and effectively, Beware borders on the exaggerated at times, with country arrangements that are at times too playful and over-the-top. Songs like “You Can’t Hurt Me Now” feature high-flying fiddles and an almost faux Gospel choir that tend to take away from Oldham’s otherwise poignant and intelligent lyrics.
Speaking of his lyricism, Beware at times takes a few steps backwards to the older days of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s catalog. The jovial country romps are occasionally countered with darker subject matters and non-typical country self-loathing, which is interesting in its own right, but can also detract from the cohesiveness of the album.
Perhaps the biggest complaint with Beware is the same issue that Oldham has subjected himself to during his tenure as Bonnie “Prince” Billy—Oldham rarely ever makes a record with the same people twice. The stripped-down mastery of previous releases such as I See A Darkenss and Superwolf presented an effective medium for Oldham to showcase his lush songwriting, and last year’s “Lie Down In The Light” perfected his new obsession with lofty traditional music, thanks in part to the beautiful female harmonies of Ashley Webber. On Beware, Oldham has yet again surrounded himself with a new cast of musicians, which certainly adds new elements to his music, while simultaneously detracting from any sense of surrounding consistency.
But then again, this is part of the mystique and charm of Bonnie “Prince” Billy. The fact that Oldham can be consistently prolific, no matter the surrounding cast or their familiarity and chemistry with him, is utterly astounding. It’s not nearly as bad as it sounds though; Beware is still classic Bonnie “Prince” Billy in many ways. The lyrics are often self-reflecting and desperately internal, as Oldham seems to sing increasingly about his lonely position as the perpetual harbinger of indie-folk music. It is a weight that Oldham has grown to appreciate, or at least accept as permanently his own.
Key tracks include the whimsical “I Am Goodbye”, and the somber “Heart’s Arms”. The latter of which finds Oldham vulnerably asking, “Why don’t you write me anymore?/Have you found something as good just next door?” Oldham has really begun to master his song variety, seamlessly balancing upbeat pop-type songs with his more introspective slower ones.
The truth is that at the end of the day Will Oldham is still arguably the best contemporary indie-folk songwriter around, so even if Beware isn’t as complete as some of his previous releases, it is still good. Oldham has built a career around being unpredictable, and it is this youthful spontaneity that keeps the 38-year-old so relevant today.
January 6, 2009
This has been an interesting year for new music, but interesting does not necessarily mean abundant in this case. I will focus on quality over quantity here and give you my “Top 10 Albums of 2008” with appropriate honorable mentions.
10. Deerhunter – Microcastle
I had long avoided Deerhunter, mainly due to the host of snobby, music elitists who sang their praises. Man, was I a fool. I think shimmering is the best way I can describe this record. Everything is drenched in reverb, and I’ll be damned if two of the danciest bass lines I’ve heard in a while aren’t on here. This record taught me a valuable lesson: never judge a book by the obnoxious pricks who read it.*
* I also know plenty of awesome people who like Deerhunter, but you know the types I’m talking about.
Recommended if you like: My Bloody Valentine, Ride
9. Punch Brothers – Punch
I never liked Nickel Creek, but there was never any denying Chris Thile’s prodigal understanding of the mandolin. Here, with the help of some fellow virtuosos, Thile has pushed himself musically and emotionally to create a truly unique record. Seamlessly blending traditional instrumentation with stark originality and a beautiful use of dissonance, Punch sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before. There are parts that sound like true Appalachian bluegrass, but the record is equally littered with a classical sensibility that is unmatched in most contemporary music. The fiddle player will chop out some old-timey pieces and follow them directly with classical violin bowing patterns that are desperately moving. Centered around an ambitious four movement concept piece, Punch is a daring record that is truly pleasant to the ears.
Recommended if you like: Nickel Creek, Allison Krausse and Union Station
8. Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Lie Down In The Light
“And I wander and lay in whatever old bed, with good earthly music singing into my head.” Good earthly music is just what Will Oldham has accomplished with his recent offering under the moniker Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Simultaneously more lofty and focused than previous efforts, Lie Down In The Light is simply hard not to like. Pedal steel, violin, cello, female backing vocals, it’s all here, and it’s all good. Admittedly a more country-oriented collection of songs, Oldham’s new record floats from track to track effortlessly, resulting in a simplistically gorgeous album.
Recommended if you like: Ryan Adams, Sufjan Stevens
7. The Black Keys – Attack & Release
The hardest working blues-rock duo in Akron stepped out of their comfort zone with this year’s Attack & Release. Not content to make another grungy blues record in their basement, The Black Keys enlisted esteemed producer Danger Mouse to help them broaden their sound. The result is a meticulously arranged record that still manages to stay true to form. Organs and pianos abound in this sonically lush effort by a band that had long identified themselves as “underproduced”. Don’t worry, the fuzzed out guitars and violent drumming are all still there, but Danger Mouse has successfully helped The Black Keys find the soul their music has lacked in previous releases.
Recommended if you like: Jimi Hendrix, Stax Records
6. Drive-By Truckers – Brighter Than Creation’s Dark
The greatest living southern rock band returned with another larger than life release in 2008. Brighter Than Creation’s Dark is an honest look into a band that has perpetually struggled to find itself from record to record. Don’t get me wrong, DBT’s previous releases are phenomenal, but the juggling of three unique songwriters often caused the band to trip over itself. Their most recent record finds the band literally finding each other. The loss of integral songwriter Jason Isbell was not enough to slow down the DBT machine, and Brighter Than Creation’s Dark is testament to this.
Recommended if you like: Drag The River, Lucero