Will Oldham has explained that the reason his band’s name mutated from ‘Palace Brothers’ to ‘Palace Songs’ to ‘Palace Music’ reflected the result of different lineups for each stage of his progression in the 90s. Speaking of names, Oldham is listed as “Push” on the back sleeve of Hope. After the ultra-minimalist solo effort of Days In The Wake as ‘Palace Brothers’ comes Hope under the ‘Palace Songs’ moniker—a six track EP released in the same year as Days. On Hope Oldham brings a full band encompassing bass, drums, piano, organ, and harmonized vocals. Structurally and melodically though, the songs here are all very similar to those on Days In The Wake—simple, sparse, slow, droll and drenched in a fey melancholia.
There were two strains of what we might loosely call ‘punk’ in the early 90s – grunge/noise rock and lo-fi DIY recordings, of which Oldham falls into the latter group – ‘punk’ as in anti-corporate, anti-mainstream music, otherwise known as ‘alternative,’ a genre which seems entirely outmoded these days since the internet-catalyzed global meltdown has helped fracture music into infinite new directions. Two mainstays of that lo-fi strain who emerged and unfolded foal-like after long gestation periods were the two great Williams of the nineties – Will Oldham and Bill Callahan, which leads me to the motifs of ‘riding’ and ‘horses’ – beautiful, sensitive creatures that appear regularly enough in the work of both artists. Mark Linkous was another, although he pushed the horse metaphor way beyond a mere motif into a major theme. No doubt it has something to do with the ‘country’ bent of their music. Time to leap into the Hope saddle, Bumstead…
Agnes, Queen Of Sorrow… is the first time we hear a hint of the simple melancholic beauty that features so prominently on later Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy albums, especially with the additional female vocal (Brianna Corrigan of The Beautiful South) adding support near the start, as well as two male band members. For the bulk of the song, the only lyrics are, “If you wait another day / I will wait a day.” The narrator and his beau seem to be on the verge of going their separate ways, but they’re damaged in some way: “Got a letter that did say / That the kid had passed away.” It would seem that this is why the narrator is so desperately trying to broker a deal, which Oldham effects by raising his voice to a beautiful but briefly poignant crescendo: “Every time I think you say / It’s time for us to go our way / I say wait another day.” The instrumentation is kept to a bare minimum, slow guitar, piano. It builds and builds towards something quite magnificent at the end. The melody is so subtle, that even with all the repetition, it never gets in the way of the song—so delicate, pretty and carried beautifully on the ripped-petal edge of Oldham’s wobbly voice and his backing singers. This song was re-recorded and released on 7″ to promote Sings Greatest Palace Music (2004).
Untitled… there’s a line in this song that remind me of T.S. Eliot’s “Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” – “I will come and meet you here / But then I may find you on / This corner of the stairs.” One review of Will Oldham’s early work compared his minimalist narratives to Raymond Carver, a fair comparison I think. “Untitled” shares the theme of “Agnes” – an unhappy couple again, the narrator appears to be arguing over the quality of a cake his partner has made: “You can make another / If you know what is wrong / But I am too distracted / From fighting all day long / But I will help you do it.” Oldham takes his wavery watery voice into increasingly tenuous territory here. Unfortunately he blunders into abstract emotive nouns at the tail end of the song and the strange narrative turns to sentiment: “The truth is of the moment / The believer is to blame / If some off-handed statement / Brings thoughtfulness and shame.” The music is a little louder, with drums, piano and organ adding support. It has a plodding beat, landing on the same note as the bass, giving the song a weary feel without much in the way of a memorable melody. A live version of this song would appear on the Lost Blues And Other Songs compilation LP.
Winter Lady… is a cover of a Cohen song from his first album, The Songs Of Leonard Cohen. Here the narrator offers his home to a “traveling lady” as though he’s “a station” on her way. This lady reminds him of a long lost love, “a child of snow” who used to “wear her hair like you.” Oldham sings it in his own way, a series of subtle peaks and troughs, which only vaguely resembles the original tune, a tune that Cohen manages to make so miserable. Bass, drums, piano and spare use of acoustic guitar. Despite knowing the Cohen song quite well, I’d not even realized this was a cover until I looked at the back sleeve. Oldham seems to take the tune into a different key from the Cohen version, but ends up flattening and losing the melody.
Christmastime In The Mountains… is a song credited to Steve Baker and Bryan Rich, the latter one of Palace’s session musicians. It’s very short and lyrically very odd and allusive, with three separate parts – one in which the narrator asks “Should I play ball with the dogs / Or walk away?” followed by a short section about enemies and needing an enemy against which to rage, and finally the observation that during Christmastime in the mountains everything is white. Oldham’s voice is very light here, sad, lissome. The music is diaphanous—scant piano and acoustic guitar.
All Gone, All Gone… sort of works as a follow-up to “Agnes, Queen Of Sorrow,” as it opens with the lines, “If you think I should go / I really will go.” Later, “it’s tragic that your love is long lost.” And where in “Agnes” he sang of riding away, here he tells her that “if you could stay on the wild kicking horse / I could handle your presence beside me.” The chorus sways heavily with the words “All gone,” and “hey, hey.” The piano and rhythm section provide solid backing to the voice, which meanders through the song like a tired wind. It’s almost five minutes long. The third best track here.
Werner’s Last Blues to Blokbuster… has the kind of pounding piano chords that suggest a black sky about to burst. This is yet another song in which one character (Blokbuster) is “waiting to know / Waiting to see / Waiting to go,” while the other (Werner) is “waiting for thee.” However this Werner character comes to the conclusion that “It’s better to be / So far off from thee / Where I recall you pleasantly / Where I can feel free,” even if it means he must now “wander aimlessly.” This is easily as good if not better than “Agnes” – between the piano and drums we get a restless, ominous kind of melody and rhythm that threatens an epic chorus but which never quite comes. There’s echo on his voice, but the vocal tune is classic Oldham—a subtle thing that embeds deeply after umpteen listens, but which then fades away as soon as the record’s off the turntable, thus making it available to be rediscovered again. One wonders whether the song title has anything to do with a German cartoon character called “Werner Beinhart,” given that the second character is called “Blokbuster,” – the German spelling of “blockbuster.” According to Wiki, the German flik “Werner Beinhart” was one of Germany’s biggest in the 90s. How this bears any relation to the lyrics though, I’ve no idea. Let’s just say it has a winsome, seductive tune, borne of a despair carried so well in Oldham’s disconsolate vocal performance. This song was re-recorded and released as the B-side to the “Agnes, Queen Of Sorrow” 7″ single in 2004. A live version can be heard on Summer In The Southeast, 2005.
The backing band add nice touches to the songs here, but if you were to strip them off the record the songs would sound very much like the kind of material we heard on Days In The Wake. For the most part it’s the piano parts that raise these songs to something more powerful and moving than they might have been. The EP is bookended though by two of Oldham’s best songs to date. On the following year’s superb Viva Last Blues the material would get stronger still under a full band sound.