Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Agnes, Queen Of Sorrow b/w Blokbuster 7″, 2004

This was the first single in support of Sings Greatest Palace Music, the album Oldham recorded using Nashville session musicians to revive his old Palace material. I remember there was a lot of hand wringing in the music press over how to take what seemed like a desecration of a great back catalogue. Was Oldham being ironic? Surely not! Time heals those wounds. If you can get your songs out to a wider audience, why not? Bob Dylan screws with his back catalogue and he no longer gets second guessed for it. Some of the versions work well, some don’t. This 7″ is a case in point. The A-side is a joy. The B-side’s good too, but if you want to play compare and contrast with the originals, then clearly you’re going to get disappointed somewhere along the way.

Agnes… first appeared on the Hope EP in 1994. In fact when I wrote a review of that a couple of months back, I noted that both “Agnes” and “Blokbuster” were the two best songs on the EP. Here we have a very countrified version, pedal steel crying in warps and wefts among the gentle acoustic guitar and violin tone, with a soft beat. It’s a fairly sumptuous sound, although that just might be a euphemism for ‘easy listening.’ What makes this cool is that Oldham’s singing has improved to the point where the whole song seems to have sprung a third dimension of melody not apparent on the original. The violin part is really quite beautiful. Marty Slayton, she of the country twang who sang with Oldham on Master And Everyone, duets with him here, which sort of makes a lot of sense in light of the lyrics. It’s pretty straightforward: “If you wait another day / I will wait a day,” a couplet that gets repeated through the song. What are they waiting for? “Every time I think you say / It’s time for us to go away / I say wait another day.” Why are they going away? Are they breaking up? Are they planning to go away on holiday together? Moving to a new town? Ah, but suddenly, “Got a letter that did say / That the kid had passed away / And everything it didn’t say.” It’s a stab in the dark, but what say the Agnes of the title, who we’ve been informed is the ‘queen of sorrow,’ is the narrator here? Perhaps it’s she who’s trying to get the Oldham-counterpart to wait another day. Perhaps she’s wallowing in her misery, waiting, refusing to move on. “Time has got me in its sway / Though I’d like to ride away / I will wait another day.” And so, by the end of the song, she, or he, or both of them are still waiting. Works brilliantly as a duet. Can’t complain about this.

Blokbuster… is also from the Hope EP but does not appear on Sings Greatest Palace Music. The original was piano heavy, as in big thunderous chords. This opens with a floaty light piano melody, before violin takes up the main role while guitar and piano play along in support. There’s a nice interlude with more pedal steel, but apart from that really beautiful violin addition, I can’t see that this version adds anything of meaningful note to the original. We get a big slow melodic part on the chorus which sounds pretty run of the mill. This version, prettier though it may be, seems to lose something of the drama, or waters it down a little. Originally titled “Werner’s Last Blues To Blokbuster,” even the title has taken a hit. So, let’s see here. The narrator, who is Werner, has returned to his old stomping ground only to find that “she,” who turns out to be “Blokbuster,” has not been waiting for him: “In the old town / When I last came around / Things were not so obvious / She was not parading as she had.” And she, Blokbuster, whispers something ambiguous to him: “There it is bliss / It’s something that I’ve skirted around / But that I don’t plan to miss.” It seems that Blokbuster has given up waiting for Werner’s return: “I washed my hands of him / But he thought I was washing my hair.” Now poor old Werner is still caught out, “stuck in a corner” in fact, “waiting to know / Waiting to see / Waiting to go / I was waiting for thee.” But he has to get out of there, leave, “I slipped through the seam / Out on the street there was no time / To pause or look back.” Finally he decides, “It’s better to be / So far off from thee / Where I recall you pleasantly / Where I can feel free.” Unfortunately, with this new freedom, he feels aimless, “No friendly step a-steering me / No guiding hand at all,” and is left pining for Blokbuster: “O Blokbuster / O Blok / Waiting to know / Waiting to see / Waiting to go / I was waiting for thee.” The past tense of that last line signifies that this waiting happened in the past. But there’s another way of reading that, which suggests Blokbuster had been waiting for Werner to return, but she couldn’t wait forever. It’s a good song, but there’s something a little lackluster about this version that makes it sound like a run through.

“Blokbuster” can also be heard on the live album, Summer In The Southeast, 2005.

Following this, a second single for the album was released in the same year, “No More Workhorse Blues.”

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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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