Palace Brothers, Days In The Wake, 1994

This album was retitled Days In The Wake a few months after its initial release as Palace Brothers. The new title was added after Oldham had decided he didn’t want to make a career out of acting, hence ‘days in the wake (of that period of worrying about what he was going to do with his life)’. In any case Oldham has stripped back the already very spare sound of There Is No One What Will Take Care Of You to just his own voice accompanied by acoustic guitar. This is no standard singer-songwriter album though. It sounds amateurish, lo-fi, reminding me of Lou Barlow’s home recordings. And yet, it has plenty of emotive appeal, Oldham singing in his quiet, plaintive way, voice awkwardly straddling the breaking point between falsetto and modal registers, and while he hasn’t developed the richness of melody he would eventually establish with his Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy recordings, his singing is still the most interesting feature of these songs. It’s an act, a put-on, a presentation of Oldham-as-naif, yet it’s the only act Oldham has at his disposal. What I like about Oldham here is how he seems in no hurry to achieve anything so dull as commercial success. He sounds anti-earnest, unconcerned, unexcited to be doing this, and therefore genuine, the real deal. This is an admirable achievement, a sound that belongs to the 90s. In the itunes age you don’t hear too many singers quite as laidback and unaffected as this.

You Will Miss Me When I Burn… opens with lovely clear chiming acoustic arpeggios. “When you have no one,” Oldham sings forlornly, “no one can hurt you.” It’s a fairly matter-of-fact sentiment, behind which lies presumably no small amount of pain, yet it would be a fool to assume that the man is necessarily singing about himself. I’ve always imagined he was creating personas for himself. Perhaps it’s that many of his lyrics are so obscure that I can’t shake much meaning from them, although their very inscrutability might suggest that Oldham obfuscates on purpose in order not to expose himself too much. Now this is odd given that he is also considered one of the most brutally honest songwriters out there. Where does that leave us? With a carefully constructed contradictory enigma, that’s where. As Lou Barlow once observed in song, “Any contradiction is a hint of honesty.” On There Is No One What Will Take Care Of You (a title which has much in common with those lines quoted above) the lyrics suggested that the Oldham-persona had deliberately chosen a path away from ‘God,’ especially in a song like “(I Was Drunk At The) Pulpit,” and here he seems to be hinting further at his own doom: “Will you miss me when I burn / And will you close the others’ eyes? / It would be such a favour / If you would blind them,” he asks his listener, because “there is absence, there is lack / There are wolves here abound / You will miss me when I turn around.” It’s a slight melody, yet something about Oldham’s voice always makes me stop in my tracks. You can find another version of this on Sings Greatest Palace Music (2004) and a cover version by Mark Lanegan on the Soulsavers’ “Sunrise” 7″ single.

Pushkin… ostensibly refers to the Russian writer, yet after the hinted-at fire and brimstone damnations of the previous song, Oldham has his singer repeating over and over that “God is the answer” and that “God lies within” almost as if he’s trying to convince himself. Perhaps Oldham identifies with Pushkin in some way, but I don’t know enough about his work/life to comment. I do like Oldham’s self-coined usage of the word “stook” to mean “staked” in the lines, “The statue marks the place here / Where Pushkin stook his claim.” The music is a tinny shambling strum with pips and squeaks from fingers changing chords on the fretboard. The chorus, “God is the answer,” gets into your head easily enough. The song has enough ups and downs and emphatic changes to stay interesting, though overall there’s not much real melody. This also appears on Sings Greatest Palace Music (2004) as well as live on Summer In The Southeast (2005).

Come A Little Dog… an odd amusing little number with the lines, “Come a little dog / And love a little dog,” repeated incessantly, as are the lines “killed a little cat and I killed a little dog / woof woof.” The dog came from “you” but alas, he laments: “Little dead dog I love you.” Make of that what you will. Sounds like a metaphor for a dead relationship. Despite this song seeming like a throwaway lo-fi ditty, it’s actually a standout mainly for Oldham’s shout-singing several feet from the mike and the bizarre woofing. There’s another singer joining him. He gets quite worked up, but the song fades out and you’re left scratching your head.

I Send My Love To You… in this song Oldham seems to be pining for a lost love, one which is probably not being reciprocated if he has to ask so earnestly for it to be requited: “Won’t you send some back to me / Send your ways to me / Send your call to me / Send your days to me / Send it all to me.” This is a pretty number, with an element of hope evident in the voice. Unfortunately for him, “the moon is falling / My wounds are calling / My head is bleeding / And I’m a duck / The lake is cracking / It hears me quacking / Fuck the land, and two if by me.” What does that all mean? The last line references Longfellow poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” with its “one if by land and two if by sea” line.  In the absence of literal sense we really only have the words to go by. When the moon is falling and he sings of wounds and blood and cracking lakes and his self-reduction to a web-footed creature – which seems even more ridiculous in the context of all those ‘ck’ sounds in duck, crack, quack and fuck – we’re left with the image of a fool hoping naively. It’s short but nice. New version on Sings Greatest Palace Music (2004) and live version on Summer In The Southeast (2005).

Meaulnes… I don’t understand the title, however what I do understand is that “he” – the main character of this song – came (a) “by the way that he walked” (b) “by the way of a half-million murderers” (c) “by the way of a long list of ironies” (d) “by the way of the road to Sioux City” (e) “by the way of the half-breeds and lesbians” and (f) “by the way that I said I was leaving.” This ‘he’ protagonist is “undaunted, unshaven and an eagle in britches” who is searching for the world’s riches. Thus like the singer-songwriter devoted to a life of music, he is a wanderer, a seeker, and “he” might very well be the singer singing of himself in third person. It has a quirky, shifting rhythm, though the strumming is mostly background stuff, while the tune arrives by virtue of the most-repeated line, “And he came by the way that he walked.” Oldham’s voice rises and falls in this line. It’s another, lightly melodic, curious piece.

No More Workhorse Blues… seeing himself as an animal or beast is a motif that will feature prominently throughout Oldham lyrics over the duration of his career. The music is a quiet, spare, acoustic strum. Silence means as much as sound in this song. The vocal is weak and watery. There’s an interesting bit of Seussian rhyme play early in the song: “I am a rich man / I am a very rich man / I have good pants on / Stitched and stitched / I am in stitches / I am laughing at you / I am in britches.” I can’t glean much meaning from it though—who is he laughing at and why exactly? He’s lost his tongue. And so he tells us, “I am no more a workhorse,” which, repeated four times, suggests either irony or disgruntlement. He gets worked up at the end, excited, defiant. “I am a racing horse / I am a grazing horse / I am your favorite horse.” Well, yes, you have become my ‘favorite horse’ Will – well said. This was re-recorded and released on 7″ single in 2004 to promote Sings Greatest Palace Music.

All Is Grace… is a tiny slice-of-life song, a warm number, very simple, about waking up, going to see a shot deer, drinking wine out of an iron cup to ward off despair and retiring to bed again, where “all is grace tonight to you.” It’s a very short song, Oldham’s soft girlish voice meandering over the simple rhythm guitar.

Whither Thou Goest… more archaic language, and rather spare, solipsistic poetry which vaguely hints at death, and dying animals, as if once again, Oldham sees himself as a beast, cattle say, or sheep – “Some are happy, some are late and / Those wish death upon themselves.” We get “paws” and “claws” and “preened unmoving fours,” and “calves who bleed their lungs out,” ending with “Baa baa, moo moo, baa baa baa.” Comedian Oldham strikes black-humoured gold. In this song, “convolutions arise,” and as the singer invites someone to scream his name “above the engine’s carnal din” we sense the theme of animal sex and death. Who needs a song to make sense beyond that? Musically, it sounds almost identical to the song before it. Tremulous vocal over a soft strum, without much of a melody, yet, as always, quietly affecting.

(Thou Without) Partner… in which the singer-persona has been dumped and asks the quietly devastating question, “When was the first time you realized the next time would be the last time?” at song’s end. He begins by referring to this change in his life as time to learn a new language, climb on a rocket, or pull a shoulder out of a socket, at night. He’s not much impressed with her sense of timing, telling her, “You picked a fine time to tell me it was time to find me a new wife.” Later though, “I have no time to explain how I have been feeling.” He depicts her leaving him with horse imagery; “she bolted,” and now admits he’s going to suffer: “No more hospitality, no more hospitals at all.” Once again the lyrics are a set of disparate images, barely string-togetherable. The vaguely tuned strum seems made to fit around the lyrics, meandering, as aimless as those “cosmonaunts” flying and dying, and the “astronauts” starving and leaving. Geddit?

I Am A Cinematographer… yet another ‘difficult’ song to analyse in literal terms. In this song, Oldham sings how he was once a “cinematographer” but that he walked away from New York City. He was also “a big old bear once” but he walked away from California. But we get a hint of autobiography in the final line, “If you were alone / You can walk away from Louisville alone.” Presumably his cinematographer and bear selves are personal metaphors, though their meanings remain elusive to the listener. There’s a stronger sense of melody in this song, owing, as usual, to the repeated lines, “I am a cinematographer,” and “I was a big old bear once,” but even so, it’s a weakly entertained frail thing. This also appears on Sings Greatest Palace Music (2004).

So, where does that leave us? In much the same place as the debut album, I think. An odd little album, short at only 27 minutes, mostly sad and morose with shy subtle tunes which slowly wind their way into your head so that by the 6th or 7th listen the subtlety dissolves and the curliest of sweet melodies begin unfolding in your ear like newly budding petals. Yet it’s an album in which you get the distinct sense that the speaker-singer has no choice but to play his songs to get through these problems (whatever they may be) –an unequivocal articulation of depression. He certainly voices forlorn on most of these songs, and as I said earlier, he’s in no hurry to get anyone’s attention, which I like. The overall aesthetic is one of the (very) lonely, countryish singer-songwriter on his tiny pedestal detailing his blues as if there’s no one in the world what would listen. He would find Hope on the follow-up EP, also released in 1994.

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About Alan Bumstead Vinyl Reviews

Alan Bumstead is a music fanatic who humbly adds confusion to the world with a string of album reviews written during real-time-listening in a stream-of-consciousness style, then edited for spelling, punctuation, flow and grammar. Apart from an additional introductory paragraph, the writing is improvised in time with the music. There is no re-writing. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- In his book Moving To Higher Ground Wynton Marsalis says, "Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what's inside comes out pure. It's like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight. The first thought is usually the truth." I like to think that's what Alan Bumstead's all about.
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