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Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Singer’s Grave A Sea Of Tongues

Drag City (North America)/Domino (Europe)

Bonnie "Prince" Billy - Singer's Grave A Sea Of TonguesWill Oldham has never shied away from revisiting the past. He updated the indie primitivist early work of Palace Brothers (and name variations thereof) from before he took on the Bonnie “Prince” Billy identity with a collection of veteran country session musicians on Sings Golden Palace Music (2004) to excellent effect. The album gave a polish and shine to songs which were only improved by the addition of high production values — which thankfully didn’t reduce Oldham’s off-kilter strangeness one jot in the process. Then came a few more more recent reworkings in curiously upbeat style of such classics as “I See A Darkness” or “I Don’t Belong To Anyone” on the Now Here’s My Plan EP of self-covers (which also accompanied a book-length interview with Alan Licht) in 2011.

In the book (which is well worth reading as an insight into the history, ways, means and worldview of this most peculiar of artistic creations – for Billy is not entirely Will, more like a character he inhabits on record and on stage), Oldham recounts how he and whomever makes up his touring band will usually try to play each song and setlist many different ways when performing live. They do so partly to alleviate the repetition of ploughing the same furrow on each night of a tour, but also to explore how the songs can stretch and take on new lives when played by different backing bands in front of different audiences in different towns on different tours, as captured so well on the live albums Is It the Sea? and Summer In The Southeast. It’s therefore not that surprising that every so often Oldham should revist old favourites with selected musicians in the studio too; and given that his recorded output levels are considerable, if not always continuous, there comes a time between albums proper* that another volume arrives in which he brings out his older songs adorned in new clothes for a fresh spin around the block.

Recorded and co-produced by Lambchop‘s Mark Nevers, the guest musicians assembled for Singer’s Grave A Sea Of Tongues include old compadres such as Emmett Kelly and Judd Hughes on guitar and brother Paul Oldham on bass. Bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs‘ grandson Chris contributes mandolin and ukelele and there’s more than enough room in the mix for pedal steel from Calexico‘s Paul Niehaus while three of the McRary Sisters provide backing vocals; and his mother Joanne Oldham did the cover too.

By his own standards — and “I See A Darkness” most assuredly attained that status when Johnny Cash covered Oldham’s best-known song — Singer’s Grave A Sea Of Tongues is at the easier listening end of the Bonnie Billy spectrum, doled out for the most part in a jollier mood than the last full band album proper (if there is even such a thing), 2011’s astonishing and perhaps even, dare it be said, career highpoint, Wolfroy Goes To Town. The latter, alongside the same era’s “Time To Be Clear plus B-Sides” single, provides the bulk of the material for Singer’s Grave, doubtless having been both honed and messed with comprehensively on the road over the years since their release. Aside from Will Oldham, the only other musician who appears on both albums is Emmett Kelly (though each record was mastered by Paul Oldham).

Where a certain level of melancholy suffused Wolfroy Goes To Town with a stately magnificence, Singer’s Grave is more determinedly on a good-time groove by comparison. A prime example of the transformation from the chiaroscuro stories beating at the heart of Wolfroy is found in the final song, “Sailor’s Grave A Sea Of Sheep.” Here, Billy takes the melody of beautifully dark epic “Black Captain” and sings it afresh with entirely new lyrics as a lilting ballad shining on glowing piano runs from Tony Crow (also of Lambchop), though perhaps losing something of the tune’s sparse grandeur along the way. Likewise, the radical rocking-out which Billy and the band apply to “New Whaling” dispenses with its prowling solemnities and chivvies everything up into the almost-raucous “So Far And Here We Are.” With its words sung now with a firm determination which turns the original mood almost completely on its head, the steel strings of an acoustic guitar take on the job of delivering the soaring counter-melody sung so effectively by Angel Olsen on the Wolfroy rendition.

While “Old Match” turns “No Match” into an almost jubilant singalong with a brightly-plucked mandolin riff which would seem right at home in a Seventies TV them song, it pivots the original’s defiantly spare atmosphere around 180 degrees until its perkiness becomes distracting, even verging on the jauntily bombastic — though as is so often the case with his songs, infectiously so. Likewise, the way in which “Whipped” is rendered with the same sort of gospel choir stylings from the McRary Sisters is more than powerful enough, but listening back to the single cut reveals huge differences. As originally recorded with Olsen aiding and abetting Billy’s remarkable self-accompanying feats of hitting the high notes, it has a similar architectural impact to Low‘s flabbergastingly immense “Majesty.” Comparing the newer with the older take is a bit like hearing BPB’s band perform in the admittedly stunning surroundings of a church or chapel, then next moment being hit upside the head by the vastness of Cologne Cathedral — the contrast really is as stark as that.

Similarly, the almost jaunty trills of “Out Of Mind” (which in its Wolfroy-era form could perhaps be envisaged with BPB performing by limelight with a hat and silver-topped cane) here becomes an altogether more  bizarrely-arranged ditty as “Mindlessness.” The chorus brings that gospel frisson to the arrangement once again, but somehow it feels a tad too AOR as a result, losing something essential in the transition. More successful is “We Are Unhappy”, where the harmonised backing matches well with Richard Bailey‘s banjo to make for an energetic new rendition. Some of Billy Contreras‘s fiddle playing here is astonishing too, from the “Devil Goes Down to Georgia” opening of a yet-more rollicking “Quail And Dumplings” — a song which benefits neatly from his subtle swoops and heart-stirring flights of fantasy — to his soul-scraping bows on “New Black Rich (Tusks).” Intriguingly, “It’s Time To Be Clear” slides into a wholly different light on Singer’s Grave, the violin and Ben Martin‘s deft, gently rolling percussion locking in while Billy croons the song softly like it was sung to end the night at a down-home slow dance, a rendition which allows Oldham and Nevers’ production to bring the softer nuances of his voice to the fore.

Where label-mate Bill Callahan opted for a full dub version of 2013’s Dream River album as Have Fun With God, BPB has stuck to a tried and tested formula on Singer’s Grave, with mixed results — though a dub edition of his catalogue would be pretty interesting to hear too, come to think of it. Nevertheless, the liberties which Oldham takes with his own music here and elsewhere is one of his refreshing traits, something which extends the same freedom to his audience to include and imagine the songs as part of their own particular story. In some respects, with these two variations on a theme, Singer’s Grave and Wolfroy Goes to Town now offer an opportunity for the listener to compile their  personal ideal version, picking favourite tracks from each to make the album afresh in their own preferred order. After all, this is more or less what Will Oldham has done with selected areas of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s back catalogue from time to time over the last few decades.

Singer’s Grave A Sea Of Tongues is perhaps not the brand-new studio album which his fans have been waiting for so eagerly; that might possibly have to wait until Mr Oldham decides if he will ever bring in a full band to play some or all of the songs which made up his self-titled, self-released album of solo acoustic sketches from late 2013. One thing is certain — whatever his next release brings, just like Singer’s Grave, it’s unlikely to be the same as any disc he’s recorded before. Give it six days or six weeks, and this album will probably be a canonical Oldham release too, hummed and heard in the distance and the background to inner space musings alike, just as almost every Bonnie “Prince” Billy release to date has become in due course.

-Richard Fontenoy-

* Recent collaborative albums with the likes of Trembling Bells and Dawn McCarthy feel like they have their own independent, jointly-forged life outside those which are identifiable as solely Bonnie “Prince” Billy records.

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