Album Review: The Marble Downs by Bonnie "Prince" Billy
Very Good, Based on 5 Critics
PopMatters - 80 Based on rating 8/10
Collaborations between disparate musical acts tend to yield one of two results — an embarrassing stain for all involved or a triumph of reinvigorated artistry. For Bonnie “Prince” Billy (Will Oldham) and Trembling Bells, their partnership falls decidedly in the latter category, bearing sweet, yet strange, fruit in the form of new album The Marble Downs. The record’s ten songs are effectively a synergy of not only both artists’ distinct sounds, but of two countries’ musical traditions.
A collaboration between Trembling Bells and Bonnie "Prince" Billy is fitting on so many levels: both of these artists love to dig deep in the musical histories of their respective homelands and come up with something equally fresh and reverent. They do this brilliantly on The Marble Downs, which shows off the finest points of everyone involved while sounding like an early-'70s record collection that was left out in the sun to melt and meld together: raw British folk nestles up against Bakersfield country, while stately brass and acid rock guitars arm wrestle. The opening track, "I Made a Date (With an Open Vein)," is so triumphant and full-sounding with its bold fanfares and solos that it feels more like an ending than a beginning; later on, the tender piano ballad "Excursions into Assonance" sets a Dorothy Parker poem to music that could have come from a parallel universe's Simon & Garfunkel.
Musical collaborations are a cultural grey area that often results in far more missteps than ideal pairings (the oft-cited Lulu atrocity should be evidence enough). On occasion, though, the correct elements of musical co-ventures are melded together to create something pretty spectacular, as is the case in the inimitable meeting of British folk-rock outfit Trembling Bells and Americana folk treasure Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy aka Will Oldham. The resulting The Marble Downs came to fruition after a string of collaborations and kindred interests.
Fans of folk adventurer Bonnie Prince Billy will be used to the Kentuckian's promiscuous collaborating, but this is one of his most eccentric assignations. Featuring the posh-damsel-gone-bad vocals of Lavinia Blackwall and Alex Neilson's psych-jazz take on medieval music, Scotland's Trembling Bells provide a genre-bending backdrop for Will Oldham's mischief. Sometimes it's hair-raisingly great, as on their fierce take on "Riding", a great old tune of Oldham's, or the surging coda of "Ain't Nothing Wrong With A Little Longing".
This fourth record from the Glasgow-based Trembling Bells is a protean piece of work, slipping in and out of musical references like the Pied Piper slipping through the streets of Hamelin, leading us to a dramatic end. Luckily for us, this end is an aural feast, borrowing as it does from a colourful musical palette that takes in a wide spectrum of folk and 60s pop, with Alex Neilson, Lavinia Blackwell, Michael Hastings and Simon Shaw picking up lone hitchhiker Bonnie Prince Billy for the adventure. Perhaps this provides some of the looseness that radiates from the record - 'I Made a Date (With an Open Vein)' sounds like the opening to a film about forbidden love in the fourteenth century, with Blackwell's hypnotic and elegant vocal wafting through a composition that becomes a psychedelic ancient jamboree (Blackwell studied medieval music).