One wonders just what it is about horses that had many indie alt artists in the 90s so enthralled. Sure, horses are cool. You can saddle ‘em, mount ‘em and ride ‘em, then spur them on a bit and feed them grass. As a sexual metaphor it seems like a bad joke, but um, a good one at the same time. Bill Callahan had a great song called “I Break Horses” on his Kicking A Couple Around EP. Anyway, the song “Horses” here was written by The Mekons, a British punk band who once wrote a song called “Never Been In A Riot,” in answer to The Clash’s “White Riot,” making them punker than punk, and cooler. Such meta-punk irony invades Oldham’s sense of humour too. Oldham follows up the A-side with a punning equestrian number of his own, “Stable Will” with The Pale Horse Riders for his backing band, which includes his brother Paul Oldham and Bob Nastanovitch who’s worked with both Pavement and Silver Jews.
Horses… is a trope presumably, though meaning what exactly, it’s hard to say. Freedom perhaps. There’s a real purty toon going on here, with crying, fading lap steel notes rising and falling amid the dawdling jangle and ‘live’ sounding drum beats. Oldham sings in a narrative style, his register doing its usual curly waver when he tries to reach the higher notes. The singer yearns to be riding horses, “if they’d let me,” and live like a cowboy, sleeping outside, not being afraid. Alas, it’s only a dream, because as the chorus keeps reminding us, “here’s that devil by my side,” preventing this dream from becoming reality, and that devil has a “death’s head ring upon his finger.” At the end of each chorus, a poor boy hangs on the light or sinks in the stream. One cool line in here scorns the judicial system; “They’ll be drawing straws inside the courtroom.” Because of that, things turn to shit pretty quickly as “twilight turns to black,” “torches burn into the sad eyes,” which happens “on the wrong side of the track.” But even when the narrator smells the campfire burning he chooses instead to go walking out on his own, needing an angel, but of course, having to suffer that damn devil by his side. To his credit, he refuses to be one of those “frightened people hiding in their homes.” The song ebbs and flows, quieting down for the penultimate verse before the guitarist goes nuts in the final verse, grungy, thudding kickdrum, and when that ends we get a brilliantly deranged guitar solo, loud and passionate, fiddly and tormented, the sound is dry and wonderful. I guess it’s a song of desire and release, but one of frustration and self-doubt too. A complex riddle that is only too human. A low vacuumous noise sucks the soul out of the song at the end.
Stable Will … musically, this has a slow ponderous start with weird effects made by recording equipment, bits of feedback, and a thick, downtempo electric guitar. Oldham’s in wobbly mode here, his emoting squealing out in brief bursts of intensity. He opens with the lines “I keep my horses at Stable Will’s / Join my brothers in song.” The verses seem quite disjointed. His horse sings a song to him, “you will be a sovereign,” and indeed, “upon my horse’s ears the crown is hung.” Next we learn about a “serrated head” which, in the equestrian context, makes one think of The Godfather. One voice is mixed back, with echo, which occasionally mixes with the main vocal to create a weird ghostly effect, and those twirruping electronic feedback mic-hum noises continue to drift in and out of the mix. Sound seems to play as important a role as sense. If you consider these words aloud, “Your serrated head anoint our dead / Brutes disrobed and deft / Heads that for their honor roll / Rot under heaven’s bowl,” you sense the thunder beneath the hooves in those alliterative ‘t’ ‘d’ and ‘b’ sounds, as well as the violence inherent in the sense of words like ‘serrated head,’ ‘dead,’ ‘brutes,’ and ‘rot under.’ The feel is deathly, squeaky, disturbing, and not at all melodic. Suddenly we get animalistic yelps, coyote calls, human owl hoots amid the electric squiggle, and Oldham raising his voice a few notches on the final verse, where we learn that when the saddle comes to rest, “toes hang from the branch,” and there’s “a horse that waits for a rider’s death.” One should “never keep riding,” sings the narrator (a rather awkward oxymoron that – ‘never keep’) followed by the final line “I keep my horse at stable will.” The best part of the song comes at the end when the guitars get heavier and the whoops, horror-movie growls and wails turn the song into a darkly humourous American gothic fantasy.
“Horses” was re-recorded for the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music album released in 2004.
The next 7″ to come out in 1994 was “O How I Enjoy The Light/Marriage” single.