Release Date: Feb 19, 2013
Record label: Drag City
After years of playing the role of guest vocalist and harmony arranger-in-chief for Will Oldham/Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Faun Fables' Dawn McCarthy finally gets to split the bill on What the Brothers Sang, a lovingly crafted, laid-back collection of songs from the vaults of the Everly Brothers that are as respectful as they are idiosyncratic. Recorded and mixed by David Ferguson (Johnny Cash, Del McCoury Band), and backed by a small army of seasoned session musicians, Oldham and McCarthy approach the songs -- almost all of which came up for air in the '60s and reside (more or less) in the deep end of the duo's formidable catalog -- in such an honest and open-ended fashion that it's easy to forget where the material was sourced. The pair forgo the brothers' tight, by-the-book harmonies for a more languid, naturalistic approach that uses unison singing as a springboard for harmonic exploration (one of the album's biggest thrills lies in wondering which vocalist will break free first), especially on ballads like "Devoted to You," "Empty Boxes," and the weepy, pedal steel-laden "It's All Over," but they're not opposed to letting loose, as evidenced by the inclusion of likeable yet forgettable open road rockers like "Somebody Help Me" and "Milk Train," both of which, in their original incarnations, benefited greatly from Phil and Don's pop acumen.
It would come as little surprise to many that Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy is a big admirer of the Everly Brothers. But what is far more striking – when you go back and listen to some of the source material of this covers album – is how much of their stuff could already convincingly pass for the work of Will Oldham. Known primarily for the tight harmonies of flawless Fifties pop numbers like ‘Let It Be Me’ and ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream’, the Everly Brothers became looser and more relaxed as time went on, allowing themselves to move away from the rigorously intertwined vocal harmonies and showcasing themselves as individuals over the top of slightly more freewheeling country-infused music.
The “Brothers” up there are the Everlys, Phil and Don, who in the 1950s set an impossibly high standard for pop harmonies with hits like “Bye Bye Love”, “Wake Up Little Susie”, and “All I Have to Do Is Dream”. Working under mentor/guitar god Chet Atkins, the brothers were a versatile duo who played pop, country, rock, folk, and R&B with equal ease, and they helped launch the careers of numerous songwriters, including-- perhaps most notably-- Felice and Boudleaux Bryant (“Love Hurts” and “Rocky Top”, among many others). While they couldn’t quite sustain the success of those singles in the late 50s, the Everlys weathered the 60s and 70s, and their legacy now spans literally every rock-and-roll generation.
What The Brothers Sang is a tribute album to the Everly Brothers recorded by Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Dawn McCarthy. Will Oldham, the Louisville native, has been recording under various names since the early ‘90s (he’s been the Bonnie ‘Prince’ since 1998), and composes idiosyncratic blends of blues, folk, soul, country, gospel, and indie rock. He often works with female singers on his albums—lately he’s been pairing himself with Angel Olsen, who just released her own debut – and McCarthy played his foil in 2006, for The Letting Go.
What does it mean to bring the music of your childhood into the childhood of your own children? Bonnie “Prince” Billy and frequent collaborator Dawn McCarthy (of Faun Fables) answer with What the Brothers Sang, a full-length tribute that reinvigorates the songs of the Everly Brothers with a clean, respectful gloss. Phil and Don Everly’s impeccable harmonies set a standard for pop music that funneled into the songs of the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and nearly everyone since. It’s a pleasant surprise to hear how deftly Oldham’s oaky tenor traces their smooth melodies; these songs fit better into his gentle country aesthetic than might be expected.