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Will Oldham / Bonnie Prince Billy iTunes Tracks Will Oldham / Bonnie Prince Billy Official Website

Will Oldham

+ {Bonnie Prince Billy} + {Palace Brothers} + {Continental Op} + {Chivalrous Amoekons}

An artist of more than his fair share of guises and collaborative saunters, the multi-prolific and world-weary WILL OLDHAM is the consummate, maverick singer-songwriter, always on the fringe of mainstream success, although standing firm in his folky, lo-fi approach. If the cultivation of an austere, Americana miserabilist pedigree endeared him to indie and alt-country fans and critics, his wilfully dustbowl lyrics suggest a truly singular talent, one with almost as many aliases as narrative voices. Seizing the almost self-suppressive BONNIE “PRINCE” BILLY nom de plume (over his own solo signature and his initially permutable PALACE rubric), the bearded Will remains as close to any roots that were once ploughed by the likes of TOWNES VAN ZANDT, NEIL YOUNG and The LOUVIN BROTHERS.
OLDHAM’s one of the few “independent rock” artists to have begun his career in acting rather than the other way round, starring in John Sayles’ critically acclaimed mining melodrama, Matewan, way back in ‘87. Following a further couple of “hillbilly” appearances including a part in western, 1,000 Pieces Of Gold (1991), Will O swapped the big screen for the fringes of the alternative music scene; although the man still proves there’s thespian blood in his veins by taking the odd role – read on.
Born Joseph William Oldham, January 15, 1970, Louisville, Kentucky, Will was raised by a large family (his siblings would duly join him in The PALACE BROTHERS), beginning his dark, revered career as an actor, while he also photographed the front cover for SLINT’s “Spiderland” set; for his troubles he was awarded the assistance of messrs Brian McMahan and Britt Walford on The PALACE BROTHERS’ Drag City Records debut album, THERE IS NO-ONE WHAT WILL TAKE CARE OF YOU (1993) {*7}. A creaky crooner by nature, Will eased his way (however unsteady he sounds on banjo/guitar), into insular tales of death, sex and er… death in a small town community; example `Idle Hands Are The Devil’s Playthings’, `Riding’, `The Cellar Song’ and the title track.
The eponymous PALACE BROTHERS (1994) {*8} – later to be issued as “Days In The Wake” – clocked in at under a miserly half-hour, but each minute was profound as it was stark and unsettling. Accompanied by a decrepit acoustic guitar and his croaky vox, one might despair on listening to the set first time around, but on further inspection he seemed to evoke preacher power, especially on `You Will Miss Me When I Burn’, `Pushkin’, `I Send My Love To You’, `I Am A Cinematographer’ and `No More Workhorse Blues’; the only band-type sojourn was the sprightly `Come A Little Dog’.
Although an EP/mini-set of sorts and delivered under the PALACE SONGS banner (Sean O’Hagan of The HIGH LLAMAS and Briana Corrigan of The BEAUTIFUL SOUTH guested), HOPE (1994) {*6} drew on a third-party levitation through William Carleton-inspired songs; `Agnes, Queen Of Sorrow’, opened the record, while there was reading of LEONARD COHEN’s `Winter Lady’; Will and SMOG’s Bill Callahan (as The Sundowners) had covered the bard’s `Tonight Will Be Fine’ on their 1993 “Goat Songs” EP.
Now as PALACE MUSIC, VIVA LAST BLUES (1995) {*7}, showed a marked improvement in song structure and production value, the latter supplied by the great Steve Albini; brother Ned Oldham (bass), Bryan Rich (lead guitar), SEBADOH’s Jason Loewenstein (drums) and stalwart Liam Hayes (keyboards), rounded out the sound. Ready and willing to ditch his brooding back-porch dirges for NEIL YOUNG-type rockers at least twice on `Cat’s Blues’ and `Work Hard – Play Hard’, Will and Co were still at ease on lo-fi twangs like `More Brother Rides’, `Viva Ultra’, `The Brute Choir’ and the bawdy `The Mountain Low’.
PALACE MUSIC made one final attempt at sounding sadder and deeper than LEONARD COHEN on ARISE THEREFORE (1996) {*7}. Sacrificing his Appalachian reflections for lo-fi meanderings and ramblings (`Kid Of Harith’ was one such example), and augmented by a Maya Tone drum machine, pianist David Grubbs and Ned on bass, his lyrical prowess was still in tact on `Stablemate’, `A Sucker’s Evening’ and the title track. While his film scoring career restarted with independent feature, The Broken Giant (1996), the singer made a return to the screen – albeit in a performing capacity – with Radiation (1998) and a brief return to acting with a cameo in Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy (1999).
WILL OLDHAM persevered under his own name, releasing the simplistic but at times impenetrable, JOYA (1997) {*7}. As bleak as any PALACE recording, several of his best tunes appear here:- `Rider’, `O Let It Be’, `Apocalypse, No!’ and `Antagonism’, while his backing stemmed from Colin Gagon, Bob Arellano and his future CONTINENTAL OP sidekick, David Pajo.
While keeping up a prolific but separate independent singles/EP release schedule (and now under the alias of BONNIE “PRINCE” BILLY), perhaps his most remarkable contribution to the music scene so far was I SEE A DARKNESS (1999) {*8}. It was a record that saw Will O take comic twists and turns throughout the set, sending his image up on an alarming scale. The album, recorded in a nondescript house, played like a beautiful ode to a Greek tragedy, whilst managing to sustain a “live” feel throughout. `Death To Everyone’ – possibly the finest track – was so bleak and sombre that it make COHEN sound positively upbeat. Although morbid and funereal in pace and lyrical abandon, there were a few surprises in the Celtic/folk-like `Madeleine-Mary’, the country-politan `A Minor Place’ and the tear-jerking `Nomadic Revery (All Around)’.
Early 2000 saw the release of ODE MUSIC {*5}, OLDHAM’s solo acoustic score to a Kelly Reichardt-directed short film. If it wasn’t the most compelling of soundtrack debuts, he at least broadened his reach with the music for “Slitch” (2002), another short film/DVD directed by buddy Dianne Bellino. Composed in collaboration with the ubiquitous DAVID PAJO and released under the moniker CONTINENTAL OP (a pairing which made its debut with a one-off track on a 1997 compilation), the record featured some of Will’s heaviest (as in noisy) material to date, appropriate for the man’s casting as a gormless surfer dude. Likewise the subsequent SEAFARERS MUSIC (2004) {*5}, an instrumental soundtrack mini-set written to accompany a maritime-themed documentary by Jason Misset.
His humour was further in evidence on the sharp and commercially viable EASE DOWN THE ROAD (2001) {*7}, his second set under the aforementioned BONNIE “PRINCE” BILLY nom de plume. The set, mainly comprised of melancholic love songs, boasting a tight collective of musicians (namely Catherine Irwin, PAJO, Jon Theodore and arty film-maker Harmony Korine) to accompany an even brighter, if not mellower interpretation of his troubled persona. Stand-out tracks included the poetic `A King At Night’, `Just To See My Holly Home’, which sounded suspiciously like a church choir jamboree and the fleeting title track, with its banjos et al. A new lyrical direction was also present; gone were the morbid Sunday afternoon trials and tribulations of Oldham’s psyche, these being replaced with affectionate, if not downright rude stanzas heir to ARAB STRAP or The POGUES – no wonder JOHNNY CASH was a fan.
BONNIE “PRINCE” BILLY returned in triumphant mode in 2003 (his first and only UK Top 50 entry) with the stripped-bare MASTER AND EVERYONE {*8}, arguably his greatest achievement in music to date. Consisting of ten skeletal songs, Will’s Kentucky neo-romantic alter-ego was beginning to make sense; it’s rare to find an album of near perfection where every track is outstanding, and it was certainly true in this case. From the lush opener, `The Way’, to the graceful backwoods haunt of `Wolf Among Wolves’, musically and lyrically the album was in every way a finely-tuned masterpiece. Recruiting LAMBCHOP’s guitarist and producer Mark Nevers, plus country singer Marty Slayton, it was equally about the subtle atmosphere created (especially Nevers’ weird spacy guitar effects) as it was about the singer’s beautifully poetic lyrics and flawless musical ark. We hear musicians creeping around in the background, Will O tapping his foot on the floor to keep time, the deep wheezing of a pump organ – there’s even a song dedicated to PJ HARVEY. All in all, a majestic and intrinsically sublime set, and, even though it may be foolish to compare BP Billy to NICK DRAKE, this was the closest thing one’ll get to the spare melodic greatness of “Pink Moon” this side of the new century.
More prolific than ever, Will O faced down the mid-00s with a blizzard of often bizarre and unexpected (even for him) albums, beginning with sings GREATEST PALACE MUSIC (2004) {*6}, an idiosyncratic road-trip down to Nashville and back through some of his most fevered, fan club-picked reveries (as well as a cover of the MEKONS’ `Horses’); kind of like DYLAN hitting Music City after the arcane of “John Wesley Harding”. Recorded with the cream of the city’s sessioneers, the record was a million country miles removed from Will’s early mumblings, finally dressing his best songs up in the kind of creamy production and arrangements (pedal steel and fiddle to the fore) they perhaps weren’t designed for, but fit like a foxglove all the same. Critics were understandably suspicious, questioning his intentions; fans accepted it for what it was, a sterling modern country album (and there ain’t too many of those around).
SUPERWOLF (2005) {*7}, by contrast, was an album-length pairing with sometime collaborator, Matt Sweeney (of ZWAN, ex-CHAVEZ), a return to a more familiar Oldham sound, and roundly hailed as one of the most consistent albums of his career. A joint effort in every respect, first on the bill Sweeney providing music to Oldham’s lyrics, their approach was one of sparseness and minimalism; very CROSBY-NASH in songs such `My Home Is The Sea’, `Beast For Thee’ and `Lift Us Up’.
The backwoods Jacobite performed another volte face late that year with the live SUMMER IN THE SOUTHEAST (2005) {*7}, cranking up the amps for a back catalogue visitation every bit as hair-shirted and barroom-ragged as “sings Greatest Palace Music” was demure. Augmented by his brother Paul (on bass), drummer Peter Townsend and fellow guitarists Pink Nasty, David Bird and Matt Sweeney, the 17-track “best of” left no stone unturned in its quest to exhume Will’s ye olde classics. Meanwhile, Will resumed his movie acting career in a couple of independent films: Old Joy (2006), and The Guatemalan Handshake (2006); in later years he also featured in Wendy And Lucy (2008) and New Jerusalem (2011).
A plethora of collaborations behind him (from The Marquis De Tren, Ryan Murphy, and alongside ALASDAIR ROBERTS and Jason Molina in Amalgamated Sons Of Rest), 2006 saw BONNIE “Prince” BILLY take on a covers venture, `The Bold And The Brave’, with post-rockers, TORTOISE; further re-vamps came via his solo mini-set, ASK FORGIVENESS (2006) {*6}; featuring as it did accompaniment from ESPERS’ Greg Weeks and Meg Baird on MICKEY NEWBURY’s `I Came To Hear The Music’, PHIL OCHS’ `My Life’, MERLE HAGGARD’s `The Way I Am’ and Gayle Caldwell’s `Cycles’; the odd one out were DANZIG’s `Am I Demon?’, BJORK’s `I’ve Seen It All’ and R. KELLY’s `The World’s Greatest’.
Coming out a couple of months prior to the covers piece, THE LETTING GO (2006) {*8} – featuring another freak-folk star Dawn McCarthy (of FAUN FABLES) on dual vox – was recorded in the cold climes of Iceland. Produced by the country’s Valgeir Sigurosson, BPB interchanges between gothic-folk and country-blues, the best being `Cursed Sleep’, `Cold & Wet’ and Dawn’s co-penned `Then The Letting Go’.
Bypassing Australian-only released concert document, WILDING IN THE WEST (2008) {*6} – recorded in California and accompanied by Dawn, his brother Paul, drummer Alex Neilson and Azita on keys – LIE DOWN IN THE LIGHT (2008) {*7} returned Oldham/Billy to the studio. Now an accomplished and seasoned singer whose larynx had improved with age, Will is still in eerie epiphany on the likes on `Willow Trees Bend’, `What’s Missing Is’ and `You Want That Picture’. Cut for the BBC in Scotland, and augmented by Alex Neilson and Gaelic folk combo, HAREM SCAREM, IS IT THE SEA? (2008) {*6}, showed the man and his songs could be adapted into almost any style.
Now anchored by alt-country musos, Emmett Kelly (guitar), Jennifer Hutt (violin), Joshua Abrams (bass) and Michael Zerang (drums/percussion), the twang-addled BEWARE (2009) {*8} was as fragile and cathartic as ever; one might have to get handkerchiefs at the ready for `There Is Something I Have To Say’, `Without Work, You Have Nothing’ and `You Don’t Love Me’, while `Beware Your Only Friend’ is uplifting and direct.
But for a few rare promos on the go, the vinyl-only FUNTOWN COMEDOWN (2009) {*7} – a one-off crediting The Picket Line bluegrass group (harmony-fuelled fiddler, Cheyenne Mize, on board) – the pairing sets its stall out with renditions of MERLE HAGGARD’s `Rambling Fever’ and RALPH STANLEY’s `Hemlock And Primroses’, among some Oldham staples.
It seemed, BONNIE “PRINCE” BILLY’s collaborative ventures held no limits, as the bard hooked up with the aforementioned Emmett Kelly-led group, The CAIRO GANG for 2010’s THE WONDER SHOW OF THE WORLD {*7}. Not far removed from the Bonnie man’s previous lo-fi/alt-country albums, his dustbowl/Steinbeck-style prose inhabited several of the best cuts, including opener `Troublesome Houses’, `With Cornstalks Or Among Them’, `Teach Me To Bear You’ and `The Sounds Are Always Begging’.
The claustrophobic crooner come up with his umpteenth set, WOLFROY GOES TO TOWN (2011) {*6}, sadly, his most bleak and bittersweet of all time. At times lightly touching the chords in a way to touch our hearts, `There Will Be Spring’, `No Match’ and `New Whaling’, were lonesome lo-fi tunes that might alienate the odd country punter; ANGEL OLSEN plays her part in the harmonies on a handful of other ditties.
Arriving after a couple of unified sets (“Afternoon” alongside Ashley Macomber and “The Marble Downs” with Glasgow’s folksters TREMBLING BELLS, respectively), BONNIE “PRINCE” BILLY got decidedly C&W on the re-worked 6-track EP, “Now Here’s My Plan” (2012).
Billy’s next collaborative/project set saw him again pair up with FAUN FABLES lass Dawn McCarthy for an album worth of cover songs: “What The Brothers Sang” (2013); basically developing and transporting the works of harmony-duo The EVERLY BROTHERS into modern-day unison.
As BONNIE PRINCE BILLY, the Kentuckian delivered his umpteenth set, SINGER’S GRAVE / A SEA OF TONGUES (2014) {*6}, basically re-vamps of songs from “Wolfroy” complemented by others not so old: namely `Night Noises’, `There Will Be Spring’, `Quail And Dumplings’, `We Are Unhappy’ and a revision of No Match as `Old Match’. While the actor has been a tad uneasy at inhaling the limelight (for many artists this set among others would’ve spelt commercial suicide), cowboy Bill just proves he’s a class act with dirges such as `So Far And Here We Are’, `It’s Time To Be Clear’ and `Whipped’.
Sharing studio space with ANGEL OLSEN (or, indeed, Na Na Narnia), The CAIRO GANG’s Emmett Kelly (alias El Topo Chico) and others, OLDHAM (alias High & Blue) paid homage to England’s rootsy alt-C&W cowpunk cousins The MEKONS, by releasing FANATIC VOYAGE (2016) {*7} under the collective CHIVALROUS AMOEKONS nom de plume. An unusual trip down memory lane featuring a dozen tracks swiped from an underrated back catalogue (`The Curse’, `Love Letter’, `Last Dance’ to name just three), their rough ’n’ raggedy approach matched that of their progenitors.
© MC Strong 1999-2008/BG-LCS // rev-up MCS Mar2013-Sep2016

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