The Amalgamated Sons of Rest is a one-off project consisting of Jason Molina (from Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co.), Will Oldham, and Alasdair Roberts (of Appendix Out). The contents herein were recorded in September of 2001. Oldham sings lead vocal on only two songs, tracks 2 and 5, and backing vocals on other songs. The vinyl EP is single sided only, although there is a picture of a whale etched into the vinyl on Side Two. Disappointingly, the vinyl edition doesn’t include a bonus song called “I Will Be Good” which appears on the CD release as a ‘hidden’ track. Apparently it’s the only song in which all three chaps fully collaborate as singers. So, what we do have is three different singer-songwriters, each doing their own respective thing, which ain’t that much different from each other – slow lo-fi folk-dirgey outpourings, although I have to observe, biased as I may be, that Oldham not only wins the voice-contest hands down but also has the best songs to sing. Basically, it goes Roberts – Oldham – Molina – Roberts – Oldham – Molina, for the tracklisting.
Maa Bonny Lad… is a Scottish traditional sung by Roberts. It’s very simple. A maid asks, “Have you seen ought of my bonny lad?” to an interlocutor who replies, “Yes I have seen your bonny lad / Twas on the sea I spied him / His grave is green but now with grass / And you’ll never lie beside him.” That’s pretty much it. There’s a few different versions of this on iTunes including one by Anne Briggs, showing us how it should be sung. Roberts gives a slightly plummy rich-voiced performance, Scottish accent, a touch wavery, but manages to hold the tune together over some delicate acoustic guitar instrumentation. The beat plods a bit, but it’s a nice enough melody. Oldham sings faintly behind. Musically it’s a fairly sparse affair, quite Palace-like in fact, a few beats and shivers on the cymbal and that faint guitar part. Very short.
My Donal… is another old traditional, very similar in sentiment to “Maa Bonny Lad.” It’s a whaling song credited on the sleeve to someone called Owen Hand, sung here by Will Oldham. Bert Jansch has covered this, with the Scottish accent, and a chiming acoustic guitar part, but Oldham sings it with more mourning forlornness in his voice than old Bert can muster, and does a wonderful job of it. Once again, the narrator is a woman singing of her “donal” who “works on the sea.” She sings of the work he does on the whaling boat, splicing ropes and setting sails, all without thinking of her “far behind / Or the torrents that rage” in her mind. She laments his absence, only seeing him “for part of the year.” The tune is real minor key stuff, played quite beautifully on guitar, with a nice keyboard humming part in the background, soft bass, and Oldham’s vastly superior vocal, recorded clearly over top. “He’s mine for only part of the year,” sings Oldham, getting his voice all in and around those syllables with perfectly nuanced expression. The music is again, really sparse, but more confident and stronger than the first track. Such a sad tune. When the first verse gets repeated at the end, both Molina and Roberts join for backing vocals, although that mild electronic rhythm and bass keep a low profile. Best song on the EP.
The Gypsy He-Witch… is a Jason Molina original. In this song, the “gypsy he-witch” gives the narrator some advice, saying, “good little girls / Know when to quit.” This gypsy he-witch tells him to slow down, “you’ve got something else to do / Sometimes you don’t get a chance / Tomorrow might be your chance.” And uh, yeah, that’s about it. I have no idea what he’s talking about. The music here is very slow, very sparse, a neat drum sound that sounds like a drop of water, a soft cymbal splash, a moaning low groany bass, bits of piano. All of the instrumentation is sort of percussive except for the guitar carrying the tune. Molina doesn’t have a great singing voice. Sort of a cross between Roberts and Oldham. His style is very of-the-moment, singing words to the tune, but as and how he sees fit. Anyway, it’s incredibly dreary stuff, though not without tune and certainly delivers some pretty lonely atmospherics. You can imagine this chap out in his forest cabin somewhere, while shadows creep around outside, um, telling him not to quit.
The Last House… is written and sung by Roberts. It seems to be sung from the perspective of a chap whose “own true love” has disappeared somewhere, or more likely died, given that he mentions the word “bones” a lot, although these “delicate bones are not resting,” nor are they “facing west with the bones of the damned,” I think. But it’s impossible to catch all the words with any clarity. He hears something “whispering her name” and generally doesn’t sound too cheerful. The words are sung so slowly that you can’t really tell where one word ends and another begins, and Roberts’s singing is too muffled to be able to glean enough context from the lines to make an educated guess. The tune is nice, pretty guitar parts chiming an arpeggio melody. At one point, the others join for backing vocals, but only briefly. After hearing the EP a few times, you realize that the six songs are all sort of interlinked via the three singers, the minor key melodies, and the theme of the lyrics. This song does in fact remind me quite strongly of the Akron/Family debut album, though without the pure vocal of that great band.
Major March… is an Oldham original and probably the second best song here. One review I read mentioned that the narrator is a soldier, and I think I’ll have to go with that, although it’s never stated explicitly. In this song, the narrator wonders if his lover ever thinks of him, and tell us, “It’s two years since I’ve been happy.” He says he’s grown his hair out longer and “I have grown my beard out too / My skin is failing / Arms are flailing.” When he sings these lines, Roberts and Molina echo the words back to him. He hopes that she’d still recognize him nonetheless. Then he gets to imagining what “bad behaviour” she’s up to now, even telling her, “You can have another man dear / To hold your stomach and your jaws / You and he can have a household / And love each other’s minor flaws.” It’s a haunting kind of melody, intermittent bass drum thumps, twiddly guitar parts, various other bits of instrumentation, all adding to create this ominous, dark, fearful mood. Weird but good. He finishes by saying something about how he fears he’s gotten in so deep, “I’m rotten.”
Jennie Blackbird’s Blues… is another Molina original, though I’d call this the weakest track here. It’s played on piano, bleakly, sparsely, although I am starting to like Molina’s vocal more. He sings in a fragile, half loud, half quiet kind of way, words bursting in and fading away so that you can’t quite grasp the content. This seems to be about a wind blowing, calling, “blackbird’s blues,” and something is “rocking in the wind” though what exactly, I can’t quite catch. This song has started to grow on me too, but it’s not crying out to be loved. I suppose it has something in common with some of those early Palace albums. Bit slow, and sort of just crumbles apart at the end.
Just goes to show that you should always give music a decent chance. The EP starts off with a couple of quite melodic numbers but slowly winds down and down into bleaker and bleaker territory. Took me quite a few listens, but eventually, the subtle tunes and weirdnesses came to be etched into the recording, began to sound familiar and intriguing. A real curio, this set, to be sure, and one worth spending more time with than you might initially think.