Release Date: Jan 22, 2016
Record label: Drag City
To have Johnny Cash perform any song of yours early in your career indicates a pinnacle moment paramount to reaching Mt. Everest or being the first musician in space. In 1999, Will Oldham dropped the Palace Music moniker and exchanged it for a precarious replacement: Bonnie “Prince” Billy. After releasing I See a Darkness in 2000, the album achieved what Oldham set out to accomplish with the Palace Brothers/Palace Music, which meant abandoning any prior formula reminiscent of his deep folk influence and carve out for himself a musical likeness comparable to no other.
Will Oldham has taken on enough different personas over the course of his career -- recording under several different names, most of them variations on the Palace rubric, and in every style, from the stark solo performances of Days in the Wake to the polished "Nashville Sound" arrangements of Sings Greatest Palace Music -- that he seems to be as much a character actor as a musician. (And he's worked as a professional actor, making the analogy all the more fitting. ) With this in mind, this collection of Bonnie "Prince" Billy performances recorded for broadcast on the late John Peel's BBC radio show finds Oldham revisiting a number of songs from throughout his career, but with a different perspective, as if he's choosing to re-think his character as he reinterprets his work.
Head here to submit your own review of this album. There are enough words on any given Bonnie 'Prince' Billy album to supplant a review of this nature. If there's conclusions to be made about life, death, love, religion, suffering, or alcohol, Will Oldham has already made them. If, like most, you've been struggling to pin down Oldham's myriad of credits over the last twenty-odd years, this is a perfect record to start.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy (or Will Oldham) may still not be a person you can name-drop at parties to get the head nods and recognition of your peers, but he’s still a rare and important breed in the world of indie rock. You can bet most anyone who’s really gotten into Fleet Foxes or My Morning Jacket has at least heard of him and, for those who have really listened, he’s considered something of a treasure. After all, not many other indie folk artists have shown up on best-ever album lists or pulled the attention of famed British DJ John Peel before his passing.
When Will Oldham first recorded the song "(I Was Drunk at the Pulpit)" more than 20 years ago, he was going by the name Palace Brothers. The song, from his 1993 album There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You, was a meditation on faith and fallibility. With its dense imagery and antiquated language, it gave the impression of an actor treading the footboards, performing the role of an old-time singer, staging a spiritual reckoning.
John Peel has been dead over ten years now but part of his legacy survives in the multitude of Peel Sessions, for one. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s umpteenth album is a compilation of a dozen of these tracks, recorded under various names – his own, Will Oldham, BPB and Palace – over a decade or so. It’s a collection of some of his best tracks recorded in a fundamental manner, with fewer of the instrumental textures of some of more recent releases.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy Pond Scum **** Domino WIG 374 (CD/LP) Bitchin’ Bajas & Bonnie “Prince” Billy Epic Jammers And Fortunate Little Ditties **** Drag City DC 648 (CD/2LP) Will Oldham’s recent career has seen him often revisiting and reinterpreting selections from his formidable catalogue, the long overdue issue of his Peel sessions show that this is clearly an instinctive move on his part. Fans unfamiliar with the sessions will find their eyes drawn immediately to The Cross, a cover of the Sign ‘O’ The Times Prince song. It’s a wild-eyed, raw rendition that reminds the listener of the thematic similarities (mainly sex and faith) of the two artists’ work.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy — Pond Scum (Drag City)In the section of Improvisation devoted to the organ and church music, Derek Bailey relates some of the advice organist T. Carl Whitmer offered to working performers in his book from 1934, The Art of Improvisation. “Don’t look forward to a finished and complete entity,” he counsels. “The idea must always be kept in a state of flux.” Bailey adds, “This idea, of practicing improvisation on a single limited idea, is often very effective.” Since 2004, when he baffled some with the sleekness of Sings Greatest Palace Music, Bonnie “Prince” Billy has operated from just such a maxim.
As a champion of uncompromising, under-represented music, the late John Peel earned tremendous respect from artists who visited him at the BBC to record sessions for his radio show. In fact, many would strive to do something unique or special for him, either debuting new material or reimagining something familiar. Will Oldham is no stranger to fresh takes.
Sweetness and sadness find a tenuous balance in the voice of Aoife O’Donovan — and in the songs on her second album, “In the Magic Hour.” A meditation on time and distance, it’s partly inspired by the memory of Ms. O’Donovan’s grandfather, who hailed from County Cork in Ireland. (That’s his voice, jaunty and weathered, near the end of an echoing dirge called “Donal Óg.”) Produced by Tucker Martine, the album — released Friday, Jan.
Of all the performers affecting an American folk troubadour persona in recent memory, Will Oldham - Bonnie “Prince” Billy - is among the most convincing. He has always sung with that requisite voice of the hybrid oracle/everyman, and on Pond Scum, a collection of previously unreleased John Peel sessions, his prophetic bent is laid bare. He isn’t necessarily preaching: there isn’t any fire-and-brimstone conviction uniting the songs here.