It seems an appropriate time to talk about Will Oldham’s prolificacy. Not content to simply release an album a year, the man seems to be forever churning out releases every few months, sometimes seven inch singles, ten inch singles, twelve inch singles, collaborations with other people, side projects, soundtrack work and live albums. In the 90s there were plenty of these tracks that didn’t appear on albums, and the frustrating thing about Lost Blues And Other Songs and its 2000 counterpart Guarapero: Lost Blues 2 is that they aren’t at all comprehensive in gathering these ‘lost’ tracks together. The tracks appearing on this compilation are from 7” singles, previously unreleased live tracks and Peel sessions or demo versions. Thus there’s no sense of consistency over the course of the double LP (three-sided), with different styles of song, different recording qualities and what-have-you.
Two of these 7” singles (Come In/Trudy Dies and Horses/Stable Will) had already been released together as a 12” EP entitled An Arrow Through The Bitch in 1994. Likewise, the 7 inch singles, West Palm Beach/Gulf Shore, and Mountain/(End of) Traveling were collected on another 12” EP called Mountain released in 1995, though the A-side of that EP (The Mountain Low from Viva Last Blues) is not included here. I’ve provided links to reviews (detailed) of those songs which were released as singles. Open the Palace doors…
Ohio River Boat Song (1993 7”)… Oldham has said of his early work that the “Appalachian” tag puzzles him, because as far as he was concerned, the inspiration and source for his work was old English, Scottish and Irish folk melodies. The reason I mention that is because you can hear that Scottish influence quite clearly in “Ohio River Boat Song” which is based on a Scottish song called “Loch Tay Boat Song.” It’s interesting that the first Palace release sounds unlike your typical low-key Palace material. It’s almost anthemic, with a big-hearted tune, clear acoustic guitar sound at the start, a loud crisp drum sound and backing vocals on the chorus. Even Oldham’s voice here seems clear and confident unlike the bulk of his Palace material. The singer is returning home from work, on his boat across the “muddy Ohio” reminiscing, weeping for his “beauteous Catarina” with her “two bright eyes,” a “merry mouth” and “lovely hair.” Alas she, who he knows to be “untrue,” has let him go, thus she is “my joy and sorrow too.” He goes on to describe the beauty of her hair and her dancing with telling metaphors, which end with this pointed line: “And the screeching bluejays seem / To form her name when screaming.” It gets louder, the bass almost dominates the vocal before final surging electric guitar gives way to delicate acoustic as the song dies out. Awesome stuff. A re-recorded version of this appears on Sings Greatest Palace Music, while a live version shows up on Funtown Comedown, 2009.
Riding… is an unreleased alternate version of the track from the There Is No One What Will Take Care Of You LP. It’s somewhat longer owing to an additional opening sequence with extra lyrics, and the main body of the song here is fuller and more powerful. In any case, since first hearing the original version I’ve really fallen for this song. It has a haunting quality, something about the structure, the way it builds and threatens, and I often find myself singing it in private moments. The first section here has a few lines about a character called “Billy Riley” who was a dancing master and a master of a daughter who the narrator and his boys “can’t get at.” This is replaced by a spoken word section which reminds me of that Slint song “Good Morning, Captain,” in which Oldham intones in a quiet narratorial voice about what happens to Billy Riley. We get this line: “Shoreward goes his heart to his bonnie hind / Who he imagines to be plumply asleep.” Interesting that the words ‘Billy’ and ‘bonnie’ should appear in one song. There’s a brief pause before “Riding” begins. The vocal in this version kicks ass over the earlier one. Oldham pushes his voice up hard along the edge of his falsetto, while the bass and guitars sustain this moody atmosphere, eschewing much of the silent space in the original. This version seems slightly faster too. The singing is really great here, with female accompaniment. Really cool stuff. This was re-recorded for Sings Greatest Palace Music, 2004, and The Marble Downs, 2012.
Valentine’s Day… is a previously unreleased song from 1993, (an orphan from the There Is No One sessions) with a great opening line: “It’s Valentine’s Day / And I’m catatonic.” The song sounds ploddingly slow, with lap steel, where Oldham sings “And oh, I could be” while male backing echoes him with “the possibilities.” A harmonica joins the sparse arrangement, although the song has a memorable melody owing to the call and response nature of its lyrics. Ultimately this narrator, all out of love, decides that one face is not enough, that “you must find another” face, and “you must be born again.” A short song.
Trudy Dies (1993 7”) … and here we’re back to the atypical Palace sound, a lonely forlorn narrator, a few bass notes, a loose, lazy sounding strum, and Oldham’s wavery vocal singing about death: “I haven’t been sad now / For so many years / With no foe to fight / Death’s all I feared / ‘Cause death could take you / Death could take you / And that’s just what it do.” From here, the song follows through four more verses with the same withered feeling, and a low organ part adding to the mood of weary resignation. There’s a bird in his ear, and cattle lowing, crying and mooing. When he sings of the house that used to once hold two, we sense this is an old dude whose wife might have died, or a divorcee whose wife has left him. It’s a nice enough melody.
Come In… is the A-side of “Trudy Dies.” It’s a strange, meandering song, with a groaning cello-type sound forming a shifting sound bed beneath the vocal and ringing guitar notes, ending with a lovely piano piece. The singer invites someone into his house for dinner, hence the title, though he confesses to being no cook. This person is leaving, going back to Egypt apparently, which could just mean going far away and thus “things will be changing for you.” He is clearly sorry this person is leaving, given the melancholy tone of voice, but at the end hints that he feels “silly for saying such things” such as inviting the addressee into his house, wondering whether it means he wants them to come again. It’s an enjoyable piece, even though the song is propelled along by the instrumental choices and Oldham’s vocal, rather than an obvious structure or tune.
Little Blue Eyes… was released on 7” in 1996 but originally recorded at a Peel session in 1993. This track continues the themes seen above, that of lost love, again a broken relationship. It’s ambiguous as to whether the narrator here is male or female: “You said my bed was warm / That you felt safe and good / While I just stared / You spread the news around / I loved another man / Instead of you.” Musically the song is rich in instrumentation, with violin, squiggly jangly guitar line, rising chorus as backing voices join, jaunty rhythm, and quite pretty with that violin part. I find it interesting the more I listen to Palace recordings how much more accustomed to Oldham’s Palace voice I’ve become and how the huge difference I perceived between his Palace and BPB days is slowly dissolving. Here he sounds in fine fettle. The lyric doesn’t really jump out and grab you as much as the squeaky sounds between the guitar and violin. Short.
Horses… is a 7” single from 1994 and a cover of a Mekons song that seems to indulge in a cowboy fantasy at first, with Oldham singing in a wonderfully wobbly-nasal: “I’d be riding horses if they’d let me / Sleep outside at night and not take fright / I would ride the range and never worry / I would disappear into the night.” It’s only a dream though, because there’s a devil by his side with a “death’s head ring upon his finger.” Soon we get images of courtrooms, twilight turning to black, burning torches, sad eyes, the wrong side of the tracks. The lyrics are suggestive, allusive, hinting at something frightening. It makes me think of the Huckleberry Finn story; the narrator could be Jim, a black slave on the run: “Poor boy hanging on the light.” Pedal steel lines float about, but the music has that ‘live’ feel, with crisp drums, and guitar parts that sound improvised. Oldham utilizes his breaking voice to great effect in this song, which sort of emphasizes that uncertain, frightening element inherent in the lyric. “Make those horses jump through hoops of flame / They won’t kick and they won’t scream / Let the good lord do the driving / Poor boy sinking in the stream.” We get loud distorted guitars in the last verse, and then some wild guitar solo, loud, abrasive, and quite unlike anything we’ve heard on a Palace recording yet. Practically heavy metal in its virtuosic intensity. “Horses” was included on Sings Greatest Palace Music, 2004.
Stable Will… is the B-side to “Horses,” and has Oldham singing self-referentially in the opening line, “I keep my horse at stable Will’s / Join my brothers in song.” This is slow moody stuff, with bits of unsettling fret-squeak and wiggly electronic effects, echoed in Oldham’s thin reedy rickety voice. And we get this interesting presentiment: “From my horse’s lips the song is sung / “You will be a sovereign.” Oldham has sung before of himself as a horse, in “No More Workhorse Blues” on Viva Last Blues. Royalty is a theme that appears from time to time in Oldham’s lyrics, and here it suggests the bonnie “prince” that he would eventually become. Forget that for a moment though. The lyric could be a continuation of the “Horses” song. “Your serrated head anoint our dead / Brutes disrobed and deft / Heads that for their honor roll / Rot under heaven’s bowl / Above our saddle comes to rest / Toes hang from the branch / A horse that waits for a rider’s death / Never keep riding.” The tune is barely discernable. The pace is as dreary as the lyric, while the guitar parts seem made up on the spot. We get a number of wild yelps, though not cowboy yelps so much as dark horror-movie wailing, animal-like squawking. Weird, unstitched freakiness in the dark night. Like an American backwater lo-fi take on the Cure’s “The Hanging Garden.” There’s a live version of this as the B-side to 1996 single “For The Mekons, Et Al,” which also appears on Guarapero: Lost Blues 2.
Untitled… is a live version of the song on the Hope EP from a 1994 concert in Chicago. The quality of the recording is pretty dire, a bit muffled. Trashy live songs always sound like this. Some neat organ fills though. This is actually somewhat more melodic than the original owing to the louder, more bloody vocal performance. Being live, it’s hard to catch the words although Oldham’s sings it with conviction. Bit dirgey on the one hand, though noisy on the other.
O How I Enjoy The Light… is from another 7” of 1994. This references “palace walls.” The quick light nimble guitar opening is quite beautiful. His palace is in disarray, with window panes “splintered and shattered,” a “crumbled dog on every landing.” The lyrics are pretty oblique thereafter, something about a polar bear breaching a pup, her loins yielding a yelp, a beating purr. The opening line is a curious one though: “It’s us I liken to a covey.” A covey is a small flock of birds, but it also means a small group of people, especially actors, which is something Oldham was participating in from time to time during the early 90s. The scrappy disjointed nature of the lyrics suggests an unmade-up mind: “I will love you forever / And if I don’t / And if I do / The difference exists in a fiction.” The melody reflects this indecision too because the tunes takes a brief unexpected turn on “and If I do.” But the quality of the recording is of an unprecedented hi-fi quality that sounds sumptuous next to most Palace recordings. And it’s a song like that this that you can really admire the way Oldham’s vocal style is starting to take flight. He sounds both loose and confident here; compellingly so. This song lets the light in, after all the preceding darkness: “Oh how I enjoy the light” and “we will call upon the light.”
Marriage… is the B-side to “O How I Enjoy The Light,” continuing with the sweetly lush instrumentation, which really does make this begin to sound more like Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy material. Given the title, it would be tempting to interpret the difficult lyrics in terms of the theme of marriage, obviously. There’s a neat rollicking organ part in here, sweet acoustic guitar, drums, bass, and everything is mixed beautifully. Perhaps it’s just me, but I find sex everywhere in Oldham’s songs. The first verse of this song has enough allusions to sex that I’m sure I’m not entirely misguided: “Just coming … just in the rift … opening up a hole … a swallowing epic as we fuse … so we die.” Is that sexual? Hard to say. If so, he mixes sex and death. “Closer to joining / Closer to death,” and the final verse: “See if they have any water in that house down the road / And I will wait here for you / And watch the women roll by / And if you don’t come back soon / I’ll pass out right here and die.” Enjoyable song.
West Palm Beach (7” 1994)… this single was produced by Kramer and has a noticeably different sound about it. According to Oldham, the songs were written after a holiday in Florida, and he wanted to connect with the nostalgic memory people have of their beach holidays. It fades in slowly on a tip-tap drum beat, and Oldham’s vocal with that trademark Kramer echo, “I can’t get the sand out of my shoes / Being in Florida’s done a number on my blues.” He also sings about how the sand and the sea “have done a number on me.” He seems impressed by the women, but sure enough, things are never that simple for our Oldham-narrator. Things turn dire pretty quickly: “And the sky is threatening black and gray and the sun’s a festering red,” he sings before turning to discuss Grandma whose “sun has lost his lights.” His partner too, soon becomes despondent. An unfortunate change in the weather has brought her down: “She won’t get out, she’s shotgun, seems she’s sewn to the seat / It’s a dirty old trick that I’ve yet to lick and she’s yet to beat / And you can see it in her eyes, she was born unwise, she was born for me.” We’re left to read between the lines, guess what’s gone wrong, yet haven’t we all had holidays where relationships are tested? In the break between verses there’s a soaring keyboard line, a little tacky, floating over the guitar and drums. The pace is slow but assured, with a slight dreamy atmosphere. After multiples spins, it still doesn’t quite ‘catch’ me the way I thought it would. It works best through its lyrics, and Oldham’s occasional pitches into warbly falsetto. This appears on Sings Greatest Palace Music, 2004.
Gulf Shores… is the B-side to “West Palm Beach,” and musically it picks up exactly where “West Palm Beach” left off. Same whimsical pace. Similar summertime blues feel, floating, drifting, warm sun, evening beaches, seagulls and sunsets. The lyrics reference lying in the sun, by the waterside. Meanwhile, “a cold and fruity drink awaits us both / Watch me frolic in the sand / O did you see me in the surf / With a starfish in my hand?” Once again, a darkness pervades the good times. The narrator is singing to his “sister,” asking her whether she’s dying of thirst, comments on her long, slim legs, but seems concerned for her health: “There are circles deep beneath your eyes / Why do you do this to yourself?” And then he tells her “you have let the family down,” which seems like a comedy line to me. Alas, “ugly things will come tonight” and “even tan your skin seems white.” He invites her to disappear from sight with him. Having already commented on her legs, I’m left wondering if this might be another incest song in the manner of “Riding”? Between the languid feel of the melody, and Oldham’s meandering lyric, the song is quietly mesmerizing. For some reason these two songs feel like long lost album tracks by MOR 70s artists, like say, an alternative to Barry Manilow singing about Copacabana. Can also be heard on Sings Greatest Palace Music, 2004.
End Of (Traveling) (B-side to “The Mountain” 7″)… here the narrator sings to “Millie” who he is going to leave behind, leave her sleeping, as he moves on to the next town. It’s as if Millie is his woman in this town, while there will be another in the next town. He seems concerned that Millie gets her rest, stays warm, and then rhymes “chilly” with Millie. There’s snippets of crying pedal steel in here, a tinny drum sound, not much of a tune. The lyrical rhythm is a little odd, while the song feels a little nondescript. I’ve heard this enough times now, but, it’s the least memorable one here. It slows right down at the end, and sounds very pretty, especially when the boys all sing “Millie o” along in the background. But yeah, I’m not feeling the love.
Lost Blues… is another previously unreleased track, with a wonderfully quirky vocal. Once again, Oldham obfuscates with the obliquest of lyrics, such that the words and sense probably don’t matter so much as the tones, voicings, and way he phrases them. Here he gets worked up quite a lot, in spots, with female duetting behind him in places. Lots of Oldham’s high warbly lines, and the fantastic line, “don’t try and shush me.” That word ‘shush’ has to be heard to be believed. He affects about five tiny trills during the singing of it, before launching into a lyric/vocal meeting point: “But I holler gleefully / In a house made for sleeping / O ! And I know / With a mouth made of gold / O ! And I know.” And holler gleefully he does. About what, I really can’t say. “Give me a little time to take what I know,” he pleads here. Songwriting, being a recording artist, traveling musician: none of it comes easy for Will Oldham.
Okay, so after spending a couple of solid weeks with this record, I can’t say it lived up to my expectations. Given that it’s a bunch of singles, you’d have thought there might be some killer gems in here. And there are—“Ohio River Boat Song” especially, plus a few others that slowly grew on me, but overall, I realize I prefer the cohesiveness of a complete Oldham album rather than compiled material. That said, there’s nothing to suggest these don’t work in their original seven inch single format. See the individual reviews for detail.