Will Oldham, Black/Rich Music, 1998

This vinyl version of The Broken Giant soundtrack was released in 1998, the same year as the movie, but the music was all recorded in 1996 and first released that year under the title Songs Put Together For (The Broken Giant) as a CD EP. I believe “Black/Rich” refers to Bryan Rich, the composer and writer of the music and lyrics, though it’s likely that Oldham contributed to the writing process.

The movie focuses on the story of a young minister in a small town who provides shelter at his church to a girl who mysteriously arrives, out of breath, apparently running from what may or may not be a sexually abusive relationship with her father. According to Wikipedia, “the film is meditative in style, with long silences and highly-composed photography.” The long silences could explain why the soundtrack is so short. One reviewer says the plot twists are so subtle that you’ll miss something if you even so much as glance down at your popcorn bucket. Nice.

Apart from “The Risen Lord,” each track here is accompanied by an instrumental version. Oh, and that text on the B-side center label is taken from the Bible, Job 38. It appears to be a passage where God ridicules man for his pathetic lack of godlike abilities.

Organ: Do What You Will Do… introduces the main theme with a quite tinny harsh kazoo-sounding organ sound, a sweet melancholy fuzzy melody, just a few notes, up and down, playing the main chorus line from “Do What You Will Do.” It’s short, evocative of the album cover in some way; cactus, sand, harsh skies, barbed wire, popped staples, sun, hot, loneliness.

Do What You Will Do… is a plaintive little ditty, which introduces a touch of wordplay which we see again in “The Risen Lord.” This is pleasantly melodic, sung in a pleading voice, word by word, phrase by phrase. It’s just Oldham’s voice and a lightly strummed acoustic guitar. The vocal is quite strong, emotional—he really uses the natural pitchy timbres of his voice to his advantage here. There is wordplay in the repetition of certain words, short phrases, or sounds where phrases are reworded, illustrated nicely in the chorus to this song: “Do what you will do / I will watch with you / Though I’m charged to wait awhile / I will wait for you in style / With you as a guide / I stay awhile / Watch with me.” We can already see the theme of protection, and shelter in these lines, which I presume is sung from the girl’s perspective as she relates to the minister, though she tells him that he doesn’t have to protect her nor lay hands on her, but rather, “just to show me some respect.” The tension builds with the suggestion of attraction between these two: “In rough times I can be with you / Laying early in my bed / And in time I go to sleep and you lay a kiss upon my head.” But she’s clearly in a desperate situation because she anticipates “the end” stating that “if an end comes it is good to be in the presence of a few … friends.”

The Risen Lord… is the longest song here with a rambling series of lyrics (excerpted from a poem by D.H. Lawrence of the same title) which are very much entangled in the alliterative and rhythmical sound play of lines like “Flows in thick flame of flesh forever traveling / Like the flame of a candle, slow and quick / Fluttering and softly unraveling.” Each line, of about sixteen syllables, is sung evenly for ten syllables, his voice then rising high and hard for three syllables before dropping off, wavering on the last syllable. It mostly follows this same pattern, with delicate lo-fi acoustic guitar accompaniment. The floating rhythm of Oldham’s dry voice hovers over the flow of words which seem to echo the thoughts of someone battling with desire for the ‘sins of the flesh’, suggesting that we’re hearing the minister’s point of view. As a religious man, having “risen again,” he is someone who has “conquered the fear of death,” but not the fear of life, and thus the fear of his own breath rushing through his nose, and the blood pulsing in his wrists. He wants to conquer this fear, which becomes an imperative (“I must”) as he experiences these emotions within himself: “Moods, thoughts, desires and deeds that chime with the rippling fleshly change” he says, and later more explicitly, grappling with “the strife of desires and the loins dark twists.” Eventually, he seems to cave in; “In the end / Oh there is woman and her ways, a strange way I must follow.” There’s a lot more lyrics through which the poem-like song slowly traces this internal battle the minister fights with himself. This is presented mimetically through the language which ebbs forward and retreats, until he comes to terms with his desire, which threatens to engulf him. I think it achieves its desired effect well. It’s awfully sad though, kind of a downer song. There’s a rather awful el-cheapo-industrial version of this song on Guarapero: Lost Blues 2.

Organ: Allowance… uses the same plaintive piercing organ tone as before, but here accompanied by strummed guitar. The sound quality is all slightly drained of colour, which somehow conjures up the blurry dreary cover of the sleeve. Sustained notes; an introduction of the musical theme that accompanies the lyrics of the next vocal number.

Allowance… again, just voice and a chordal melody on acoustic guitar. Similar themes are explored in this song, from the minister’s perspective again, though he might be talking to himself this time; “What make of man are you? … / Your spirit is held through.” This is more narrative than the previous songs, where we learn that “she came in the house again / Brought in the scent of her flowery rent / Her spirit unknown to you but close to you.” The idea that her end is coming, that she might die soon, perhaps by whatever it is she’s running from, is broached again, and we get a chorus of sorts: “But you let her pass by / It is allowance that I speak of / And it’s hoped that she dies without knowing what you think of.” Perhaps his desire remains unfulfilled after all. The song is sparse, carried along on the delicate sorrowful subtleties of Oldham’s beautifully harrowed singing.

Black/Rich Tune… there was a demo version of this song released in barely listenable form on the 7” single that came with the original LP copies of Viva Last Blues. Lyrically it’s a difficult one; snippets, pieces, thoughts and ideas which only hint at a story of conflict: “We won’t confess what we’ve done … / The unweary losing still of battle / Fighting men heavy with rigour.” There’s no clear linear development in this song, only words, touching on the landscape and the struggle. Oldham’s narrator sings of eyes fixed on the sun, the wind, our bones, this cold, the sun; a bleak landscape in which the narrator representing a group, “we”, seems to be admitting defeat: “What would you give to see us leave our blood at your feet…?” he asks, “And what would you see give our eyes mournful / At your hip for the pride of surviving?” One wonders if the father has arrived for the girl. I couldn’t get too excited by the demo version of this song, and I have to say, the updated version isn’t much better. It’s sparse in instrumentation, capricious of rhythm, uncertain in meaning, weak, a little frail, mournful, erratic  more miserable even than “The Risen Lord.”

Organ: Black/Rich… is that same whiny, seesawing organ tone, very short at well under a minute.

Guitar: Do What You Will Do… is the main theme on solo guitar, reminds me a little of Nick Drake, though not quite as tightly played, and simpler. It’s nice though. And short at about one minute.

I guess the music would make more sense if you’d seen the film. My interpretations of the songs are only attempts to fit them to the brief plot I outlined above. Apparently the film is kept on file in the Museum of Modern Art. As a Will Oldham release, it fits the Oldham oeuvre closely, the vocal songs sounding most like his Days In The Wake material. And it’s a nice listen too. Oldham captures all sorts of emotions in the shifting nuances of his vocal melodies, though “tragedy” is the best abstract blanket I can think of to throw over this short set of songs. Will Oldham and Bryan Rich would eventually work together again in 2014 on the “New Black Rich (Tusks)” seven inch single.

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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