Among all the hubub of the end of the year, somehow Will Oldham (AKA Bonnie "Prince" Billy) managed to drop two new albums in between being in awesome Kanye music videos. Not that he hasn't been releasing records with the same regularity that my first wife put out (See: Summer in the Southeast, The Brave and the Bold (with Tortoise), Cursed Sleep, The Letting Go). That's almost twice a year for those of you keeping track. Not to mention appearing in R. Kelly's new Trapped in the Closet series. Oldham can't seem to sit still and it shows up in his new "Ask Forgiveness" record which is an 8 song covers album of anything from R. Kelly to Phil Ochs.
Oldham has this habit of hypnotizing his audience with simple droning guitar lines that sound like the underside of your unconscious. Then he hits you with a signature idiosyncratic line like - "I love my tummy / It's round and firm and funny." So, to hear his covers, where he doesn't get to surprise us with the lyrics, is a bit of a change. But with characteristic style, Oldham manages to out emote Bjork and make R. Kelly's "The World's Greatest" sound like a guy trying to get his self-confidence back after years of group therapy by stripping the track of it's R&B sheen and exposing the raw nerves at the center of R. Kelly's work (frankly, it makes R. Kelly sound like one of the greatest songwriters of the past 20 yrs).
The record was cut with folks from the Espers backing Oldham. And the sound is that trademark sinewy, plodding, thoughtful sound that Oldham does so well. Listen closely to Meg Baird's beautiful soprano punctuate Oldham's subtle guitar strokes. Not that there aren't some clunkers on this album. "I've Seen it All" from Bjork's Dancer in the Dark doesn't quite lift the song beyond the Bjork/Yorke version and falls into awkward lifts and shifts which doesn't play to Oldham's strong suits. Still, it's a worthy purchase for those who love Oldham and those who are trying to cultivate their winter malaise.
"Wai Notes" is another story. The recording, in collaboration with Dawn McCarthy of Faun Fables, is a tape-hiss ridden series of demos from the studio album "The Letting Go". Put up against the heavily orchestrated sound of "The Letting Go" these songs are in utero. Stripped of the production, Oldham's voice sounds right at home in the ultra lo-fi recordings and Dawn McCarthy's voice is a ghostly counterpoint to the lonesome guitar sound.
This record was released in a really limited quantity only 10,000 quantities worldwide, which is worth it considering the beautiful handmade packaging. For fans of Oldham's production on "The Letting Go," "Wai Notes" will seem out of place and incomplete but for those of us who still listen to the Palace Brothers, "Wai Notes" is another beautifully simple example of how Oldham can turn the most rudimentary recording into a masterpiece. The songwriting gets a chance to stand out here. You can hear the pages turning and Oldham talking to McCarthy in the background. It's like Oldham's "Basement Tapes" and a handmade gift to lifelong fans.
Both these albums sound like antidotes: "Ask Forgiveness" to 2005's wacko cover album "The Brave and the Bold" that Oldham made with Tortoise and "Wai Notes" to the polished sheen recording of "The Letting Go". As antidotes they show that Oldham can do whatever he wants and succeeds in most of it, whether it's turning another artist on their head or showing us the odds and ends of his recording. And as remedy's they're another pair of gems from Louisville's own, Will Oldham.
REVIEW: Bonnie "Prince" Billy - Ask Forgiveness & Wai Notes (with Dawn McCarthy)
We Listen For You Friday, January 04, 2008