Will Oldham, Guarapero: Lost Blues 2, 2000

‘Guarapero’ is a colloquial term for “a person who drinks a lot or knows how to drink,” but a ‘guarapero’ can also mean one who makes ‘guarapo’ – an iced drink popular in South America. Guarapero picks up not only where Lost Blues And Other Songs left off, but also what that prior compilation left off. ie. “Drinking Woman,” the B-side to “Ohio River Boat Song.” The songs range in date from 1993 through to 1997 and comprise the A and B-sides of several 7” singles as well as a couple of Peel sessions, live tracks and two tracks from an unreleased album that Oldham recorded with the Dirty Three in 1996 (working title “Guarapero”). According to Oldham, despite having the album all mixed and artwork prepared, he pulled the plug in the eleventh hour, dissatisfied. He describes the sessions as “disjointed” because of the haphazard way the musicians came together to record their parts. That’s a pity, because to my mind, a full Dirty Three/Will Oldham collaboration sounds like a wonderful thing.

Gatefold sleeve

Drinking Woman… was the B-side to the first Palace single, “Ohio River Boat Song” (1993). It’s a simple, somewhat jocose song about “a woman who drinks … / Dances and winks / And … thinks of drinks / … / and she loves to lean and she breathes and bleeds alcohol.” That pretty much sums up the lyric. As for the music, it’s a limp, slightly abject sounding thing, a cripple hobbling along on crutches, and Oldham, in forlornest of voice, sings it aloof of his subject as if he’s happy to make fun of this drinking woman. It would be tempting to link the ‘drinking woman’ with ‘guarapero’ – well the link exists, but not a causal one because the song dates back to 1993. It’s got some neat little lap steel lines and flamenco style guitar for the last few seconds of the song.

The Spider’s Dude Is Often There… was the B-side to 1996 single “Little Blue Eyes,” with two violins creating cross-resonance, a masterful touch. Here we’ve got one of those quirky Oldham tales that follows its own path like a river meandering in a mazy motion. The narrator loves to “see a milky white angel” drooling into his chest hair. “She humored my softness” he tells us, then makes an offer; “I’ll let your spider eat my fly / If I can scratch your bone,” which I hesitate to interpret other than to acknowledge the conditional quality of their relationship. But he ups the sexually suggestive ante; apparently “Sweetheart couldn’t do better / I eat much like a ramrod / I got a whale of a wild heart littleblueeyesnow.” He sings of “heaven’s tits gleaming up” and how he’ll eavesdrop as she slips into the tub, his voice almost breaking in two, while he stumbles around in the basement “among the dog beds and the piping,” referring to himself as a husband who will last. Lots of sexual tension. The rhythm is disjointed, hard to get a groove on, and if there’s any melodious pleasure here, we owe it to those violinists for their exquisite contribution.

Gezundheit (7” single 1995)… is what I think of as the “Phil Ochs” song, in which Oldham upturns a tradition of reviving the spirit of a once-conscientious troubadour who has long passed away. The song originates in an old poem, although it was Billy Bragg who first changed the words to a song about Phil Ochs. The song is performed in an old folk style in which Oldham imagines dreaming about Phil Ochs. The tradition requires the Ochs character to proclaim that he never died, which Oldham duly upholds, but from thereon things turn dire; Ochs finally tells him, “you’ve got an unhealthy mind.” From here the song stops, while an old 50s style recording of a woman reciting another poem starts up, which itself gets wiped out by another backwards recording of Julee Cruise. The Gezundheit backsecond poem doesn’t seem to have too much bearing on the first part of the song, but if you put your thinking cap on, it’s possible to force a meaning out of it. It’s an odd piece of bricolage.

Let The Wires Ring… is the B-side to “Gezundheit.” Lyrically, it’s like a short story condensed into fifty phrases extracted haphazardly from the original text. But there’s enough loaded language to suggest something about the conflict between two people (who might be an entertainer and her manager) over money, with broken phrases like “push your neck veins bulbous,” “this stabbing step,” and “threatens to crack.” The narrator keeps urging his partner to “make those wires sing,” to “keep playing.” It’s as though they’re in a boat, with a hull ready to crack, one barely afloat, and short on cash. The singing narrator recalls Johnny Ace, a singer who accidentally shot himself in the head in 1954, telling her not to make the same “silly move” as “that hardly memorable fool.” The upshot is that despite his abuse of her, this fellow needs her to help him make money. It’s like they’re some hopeless singing dancing troupe who travel around the countryside, a little past their prime, and maybe even out of time. Together the rashly strummed guitar, lo-fi recording, and wailing vocal make the song sound positively ancient.

Big Balls… is from a 7” AC/DC tribute single, released in 1997. The original “Big Balls” was blokey comedy rock which punned lamely on the dual meaning of balls as both ‘dance’ and ‘testicles.’ Oldham makes fun of it by redoing the song in a weak, watered down, yet serious kind of way, offering the song without any mention of the ‘dance’ meaning of ‘ball’ and singing it as if it was an old folk tune – guitar and organ – but changing enough lyrics to make a mockery of the original. “We could be eating pudding but we’d rather place our balls in their mouths when they are eating,” and towards the end, “Once you’ve mouthed my testicles / You’ll know I’m not a liar / I’ve got great balls of fire.” What’s really funny is Big Balls labelthat the lyrics are sung in a slurred, blurred, barely audible voice, often two of these watery voices passing over top of one another, which has all the impact of a hippy waving a joint around, thus utterly stripping AC/DC’s song of all its happy testicular masculinity. It’s quite lo-fi, but has enough of a quirkily memorable tune that you’ll find yourself singing along in no time: “But they’re not the only balls of them all.”

For The Mekons, Et Al… is a live 7” single released in 1996, and I found it a difficult song to get into, after numerous spins, mostly owing to its long repetitive and tuneless nature. It sort of sounds like a jam between the guitarist and the organ-player, who sounds like he’s possessed by the spirit of Al Kooper. Oldham’s vocal is thin, rambling and difficult to make out properly. He rails on about deputies, asking at song start, “Is it time for you to settle down?” Whether this is directed at the Mekons is unclear. The second line, goes, “yet your tiredness and sadness keep my spirits up.” The lyrics float here and there, never quite gelling into a coherent whole, any chances of for the mekons frontwhich, are eroded further by the apparent structurelessness of the song. It’s still not an altogether unpleasant thing to listen to, but after trying hard with it, I feel justified in leaving it be, and moving on.

Stable Will… is a live version of the B-side to the “Horses” 7”, but here the B-side of “For The Mekons, Et Al” (1996) recorded from the same concert. As such, it has the same poor unfocused dynamic (in its capacity as a recorded thing) as the A-side, sounding like a garagey mish-mash of cymbals, rooty-tooty organ and grinding bass and guitar. Oldham’s voice is again, thin, half-buried and indecipherable, until the quite glorious finale, where he screams the line, “I keep my horse at stable will,” over a few times which suggests to me that there will be ‘no more rides’ because riding can be dangerous.

Every Mother’s Son (7” single, 1996)… is a Lynyrd Skynyrd cover, in which Oldham only changes one word this time: ‘horse’ becomes ‘pig’: “Well, I’ve been riding a winning pig for a long, long time.” It’s slow, melodic in a yearning despairing kind of way, featuring a piano part that rumbles prettily throughout the song, to give it that feeling of depth we associate with poignant piano ballads. More than Lynyrd Skynrd, Oldham sounds most like early Neil Young in solo mode here. The basic premise is this: “I’ve seen it happen so many times, so many times before / Some man’s got so much money / He doesn’t worry no more / Or he’s got such a pretty woman that’ll treat him fine.” If that’s the case, he’s a “fool” and will likely “fall” as has happened to so many of his friends. When Oldham sings “Cause he’s got. So. Much. Money…” in such high-arching voice you have to wonder just how serious he is. Couple that with what sounds like Oldham deliberately pushing his every mother's son frontvocal chords into nerdy teenage voice-breaking irony, and you start to wonder about the sincerity behind the performance. Otherwise the song is a luvverly shambling affair, which sounds a lot like “Helpless” as sung by Neil Young on CSNY’s Déjà Vu.

No More Rides… is the B-side of “Every Mother’s Son.” In Oldham lingo, the phrase ‘no more rides’ hints at the end of a relationship. He begins the song with a weak, sad little strum, beginning on a conjunction, as if we’re partway through a dialogue, with the line, “And I asked could you work it out” repeated four times, followed by “No more rides” also repeated four times, in an almost sickly voice, loosey-goosey, before he asks the question, “Will our friendship see another year?” and, “Oh my friends shall we shed a tear?” In between these sensible lines we get some seriously tenuous links between verses. The singer seems to stand partly aloof, not really offering to get himself involved (“I admire but I’ll stand on the scene”) for his brother’s sake: “Oh, my brother, is your lover dead?” Once again, “no more rides” followed by the final repeated line “And I asked could we leave it out.” So, something’s over, and there’ll be no more ‘rides’ for this chap, and a request to dispense with the drama. The music is a few strums here and there, a few hobbling piano notes and chords, no real tune, and Oldham singing on the thinnest edge of his most lackadaisical voice. Dispiriting stuff.

The Risen Lord… is a different version of the track on Black/Rich Music. In that review I interpreted the lyrics (which come from a poem by D.H. Lawrence) as a sort of internal monologue by a priest battling with himself over his feelings of desire. This version is radically different; first we’ve got a hard drum machine rhythm, and a tacky eighties kind of keyboard sound, and well…it’s kind of awful. I actually grew to quite like the other version, mainly for the lyrics which were quite playfully poetic in a Gerald Manly Hopkins kind of way. This sounds sort of like DIY home recorded ‘industrial,’ with those bloody awful keyboards and that nasty pre-programmed beat. The lyrics don’t exactly lend themselves to a particular rhythm or melody, so Oldham’s doing his best to sing-recite them, but the gaudy music gets in the way and the whole thing just feels too incongruous to encourage the listener’s attention. Waste of time. Made far more sense included on the soundtrack, but here it seems utterly pointless.

Boy, Have You Cum… this is an unreleased version of the song otherwise known as “You Have Cum In Your Hair And Your Dick Is Hanging Out” which appears on the bonus 7” for Viva Last Blues and is also an album track on Arise Therefore. This also uses a preprogrammed drum rhythm, with an electronic bass sound and a distant shimmering keyboard sound. It sounds almost as bad as “The Risen Lord.” One wonders if this was an alternate take of the Arise Therefore version. Despite this being my third time round writing about this song, I still barely recognize it, such is the very dreary nature of its tune(lessness) and barely coherent lyrics. Allow me to illustrate: “A head start on the frog / On the deer and the dog / The things we true were taught / Loyal, torn from the heart.” Say what? The chorus: “She won’t come / I’ll be gone,” suggests disconnect or excommunication. The lumpy leaden drum rhythm and block graphics of the bass/keyboards are like a kick to the head and pretty much destroy any hope of trying to engage with the lyrics.

Patience (7” single, 1997)… takes patience to enjoy, only because it’s such a faintly heard thing, soft delicate strumming and a gauzy kind of vocal, the whole thing sounds like it might just float away while the singer waits to ‘couple’ with his true love. But before we learn that, we have to listen to the singer list all the things he wasn’t born as, and a few things he was, in order to get some idea just who this fellow is: “a bold and tireless worker,” someone to be noticed and respected, someone who’ll follow his dream right through, but he’ll align his heart with no one because he’d rather retain that innocence we’re all born with when we’re “applied the light of birth.” Essentially, he seems to be suggesting that he’d rather remain a virgin than get easy, cheap sex — hence the virtue of patience frontpatience. After hearing this song quite a few times now, I can sense the congruity between the lyrics and the light folky style of the music, but the melody is borderline neither-here-nor-there.

Take However Long You Want… is the B-side to “Patience.” The title is offered as a sort of carefree advice to the ‘you’ addressee, for whom it seems this singer either doesn’t care for too much, or, is setting free, as in that well-known maxim, “if you love somebody set them free.” Perhaps he’s so resigned to this person’s leaving that he’s put painful thoughts behind him: “I won’t be sorry when you’re gone,” he sings, ambiguously—perhaps he really doesn’t care—“I will be here when you need to leave / And I won’t be sorry when you go.” There are hints though, that he is of the latter mind: “As times will wait around to be / Something tall and black and glamorous / Like about what you would dream / But you won’t be hanging round with me.” That sounds like mild discontent to me. This song has a prettier vocal melody than “Patience” although again, the staid acoustic strum keeps the overall feel wistful. There’s also a live version of the song on Summer In The Southeast, 2005.

Sugarcane Juice Drinker… is a number from the Dirty Three collaboration LP that was never released. Opens with a roar and a crash, grungy, before settling down into an accordion melody. The title is a translation of “Guarapero” although it’s difficult to see how that has any bearing on the lyric which is all about a guy being an asshole: “Won’t nobody allow in / One as I have been / Cruel and unyielding / Fiercely demanding / Unruly, unpleasant, solitary / With a heavy handedness / And an overgrandedness.” I find that interesting in light of comments I’ve seen people leave on the internet in reaction to Will Oldham interviews: “arrogant dick” says one guy. In any case, this dude can’t seem to break into anyone’s circle:  “Gated, everyone are / Unintentionally / Barring me.” He decides to try one more time by being “sweet and inviting / Strangely exciting” but also “lewd and … extraordinary.” Is he describing some kind of public perception of himself ironically? Is he being honest? Is he wasted on sugarcane juice? He’s driven back into town from the northern shore today, to see a play, with a girl, and wonders how he’ll be treated by those who gather to gawk at him. The rhythm and volume levels are up and down, reflecting the internal storm and torment of the narrator. There’s a lone female backing vocal on the sections that get louder and thrashy. Generally, Oldham’s vocal is not clear here, some of that blasé singing that suggests he doesn’t give two hoots (a fuck).

Call Me A Liar… is another pre-Joya, unreleased track from the Dirty Three collaboration which also uses that accordion sound (I think – if I’m wrong, sorry Will). The previous song and this one – I can’t help feeling that the ideas expressed in these are more personal to Oldham, but perhaps expressed in a slightly pissed off way, less self-aware than the kind of self-examinations we’d get to see on the I See A Darkness album. One wonders whether – and if so, to what degree – discontent with his lyrics might have caused Oldham to cancel the “Guarapero” album. These two songs, this one and “Sugarcane Juice Drinker” could have been released as the A-side and B-sides of a 7” single, they sound so much of a piece. This is the far more tuneful of the two, but again, we get a thin vocal and a noisy, slightly thrashy, lightly squally, soft/loud dynamic in the instrumentation. The lyrics here too sound angry: “Call me a joker / Call me a liar / Call me whatever you want to / I am a smoker / A midnight fucking toker.” And a bit later: “And the fan-tails take their early morning walk / I shoot rounds off while they swing about the road.” This dispute happens in the morning, because after this, Oldham sings about the “evening” as he recalls the unpleasantries earlier in the day: “My inside’s crying and screaming with an awful call / My appetite shows the morning altercation’s toll.” He sings, “I wasn’t born dumb, but oh I could become / Innocently rubed by someone” which connects with later lines about becoming “much wiser” while still miffed that he’s been taken for granted, that this person figured “I never understood.” He seems to be using the song as a means of making up; “When it’s over,” he says, “I’ll be your brother / And give my heart and head to you,” while in the last couplet, there’s mention of money. One wonders… I’m reminded of Dylan’s “Dear Landlord” and those words that go “If you don’t underestimate me / I won’t underestimate you.” I think this is a great song, but it’s a pity that without the lyrics being available, it would be quite difficult to follow. Great melody anyway, and nice dynamic with that accordion sound.

O Lord Are You In Need… a Peel session from 1995, first heard on There Is No One What Will Take Care Of You. Musically, it’s much warmer, and prettier than that earlier version, with what sounds like electric piano filling in the background with decorative ornamentation. The guitar performs a similar role. In this song, some man is coming to meet the singer-narrator, though for what reason, I’m not quite sure. He admires this man, although the man may be coming to kneel and ask for kindness. At this point we get a guitar ‘solo’ for an instrumental break. When the man comes, the singer says, “Your face seems hardly that / Which I’ve pined for in the mirror … / Nor the visage I held up / To support me in life’s furor.” Thus he’s disappointed that this man isn’t the hero he was hoping him to be. But one wonders whether the man is a religious guru of some sort because he asks, somewhat blasphemously or heroically, between every verse, “Oh Lord are you in need?” and thus turning the religious connotation of ‘saviour’ upside down. I don’t know if I prefer this version to the original, but it’s certainly a nice way to end…

… though we’re not quite at the end yet. At this point the needle slips into a circular groove, even though there’s one more track, a ‘secret’ track if you like, that requires you to get up and physically move the needle on to it…

Apocolypse, No!…  is an early version of a song which wound up on Joya. It’s very, uh, how shall we say … experimental? Musique concrete, cymbals, low shimmering church organ tones, mandolin notes (?), strange electronic noises, shuffling shifting sounds of a beanbag-like maraca, a soft strum on guitar; yeah, lots of little ‘bits’ of sound fading in and out, appearing, evolving, disappearing. The only constant is that organ sound, and Oldham’s voice of course, which offers the lyrics up like sung poetry, the ‘tune’ being improvised on the spot. It’s an interesting collage of sounds but I think this was possibly my least favourite song on Joya, a weak thing, mumbled lyrics about a friendship between two guys who share out “pills / Splitting evenly the blues and the pinks,” except that his friend “got the motherlode this time.” They meet later “on the causeway / Unloading all our grievances there,” but before kiss-and-make-up the narrator playfully attempts to drown his friend at the “waterline.” It ends happily with them going “arm in arm to the fair.” The song quickly dies out.

This is an even less cohesive collection of songs than the first volume, Lost Blues And Other Songs. I preferred hearing many of these on their 7” formats, but as a double LP, it’s a little too disjointed, too capricious of mood and thin of melody to be enjoyable as a long-playing experience. I guess it’s not trying to be an ‘album’ as such, and was put out to help those fans wanting to hear the songs without having to collect all the singles, so it serves a functional purpose at least. Generally I think the material here wasn’t as strong as the earlier Palace singles.

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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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