Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Sings Greatest Palace Music, 2004

According to Oldham, after working with Marty Slayton on Master And Everyone and realizing how it easy it was to work with professional studio musicians, he decided he’d head down to Nashville and make this album, which doesn’t sound like an act of irony so much as genuine enthusiasm for the project. He thus describes it as a “yearbook project.” How does it fare? After getting to know all of these songs in their original forms, I find it entertaining. Some tracks are just plain funny, some neither improve on nor detract from the originals, some mine the emotional power of the original really well, and some reside in snoresville. All the tracks here come from Palace albums or 7” singles released between 1993 and 1995, and because I’ve written about most of them twice already, I think I’ll refrain from going into deep lyrical discussion. Click the links to read the original reviews. The music is spread across only three sides of vinyl.

New Part
ner… originally from Viva Ultra Blues, 1995, this version sounds like easy-listening country in the manner of eighties Willie Nelson, which is appropriate given the chorus line, “You are/were always on my mind.” There’s a nice pitter-patter drum sound, a chorus of backing singers, and a light fiddle in the background. “New Partner” is ostensibly an “I’ve moved on,” song, with Oldham repeating in the chorus, “And you are always on my mind” although it’s ambiguous whether that’s present or past tense—it could just as easily be “And you were always on my mind.” Past tense makes more sense because we get to the kissoff line: “But hello, I’ve got a new partner riding with me.” The verses are just as ambiguous as the chorus—ostensibly the song is sung to the old partner but one wonders about that in these lines: “There’s a black tinted sunset with the prettiest of skies / Lay back, lay back, rest your head on my thighs.” He then sings of “some awful action” which “breathes from a deed so exquisitely grand.” What has he done? Has he murdered his old partner—is that why he sings “You’ll haunt me / Til I’ve paid for what I’ve done”? This culminates in the final two lines: “We all know what we know, it’s a hard swath to mow / When you think like a hermit you forget what you know.”  But musically, this is possibly the least interesting track here. A live version can be heard on Is It The Sea?, 2008 and as an acoustic demo on the B-side of the “Strange Form Of Life” 12″ single, 2007.

Ohio River Boat Song… was a non-album track, originally a 7” single, 1993. I’ve written about this song twice already, so a very brief re-cap: The narrator is rowing home across the Ohio river pining for his lost love, the beautiful Catarina, who dumped him last night. He can’t get her out of his mind. Oldham lifts the melody and even most of the lyrics from an old Scottish song called Loch Tay Boat Song and turns it into a hillbilly country thing. Here we have pedal steel lines, a rollicking country singalong chorus, a trio of women singing ooohs and aaahs, and while it was a catchy song to begin with, here Oldham prettifies the song further into what is almost bland territory with a mid-tempo soft rock beat and electric guitar lead. Can also be heard on Lost Blues And Other Songs, 1997, and live album, Funtown Comedown, 2009.

Gulf Shores… is another non-album track, also a 7” single, 1994, and appears on Lost Blues And Other Songs, 1997. Once again, I’m not convinced the song needed to be reissued in this vein; it was already one of Oldham’s softest rock songs to begin with. Here we get some nice violins, a great piano part, and a good lyric which I much preferred hearing on the original. The song is set at the end of a beach holiday in Florida. The narrator seems to be trying to encourage “Sister” to cheer up. She’s been lying around doing nothing ever since they arrived and seems depressed, though it’s not clear why. There is brief mention of a “him” at one point, which is perhaps the only clue we get to why she seems to be in bad shape, though we are left to imagine the link. The narrator gets annoyed with her, telling her, “you have let the family down.” He offers to take her on a ride and see some sights. Matt Sweeney provides background singing, and there’s even a few light squirts of sax in here too, but none of it adds much to the original. Even Oldham’s vocal sounds half-hearted—it always had that dreamy quality, but that’s part of what made the original; it kept with the aesthetic. Here he’s going through the motions.

You Will Miss Me When I Burn… is from Days In The Wake, 1994. In this song the Oldham-narrator is either breaking up with someone, or being dropped again, and with a sigh of bitter acceptance, salves his pain with these repeated lines: “When you have no one / No one can hurt you.” Oldham sings softly. Light swirly pedal steel lines float airily about. However, he can’t quite let go, singing to his ex-partner or whoever it might be these worrisome words: “Behind you, I have warned you / There are awful things,” and asking, “Will you miss me when I burn / And will you eye me with a longing?” He wants to be longed for; he wants “to be missed,” and by the end of the song, is quite certain that “You will miss me / When I turn around.” It’s nice to hear a song like this recorded with a full band; the Days In The Wake songs were always quite feeble things, in a good way that is, but at least this version is quite different. It’s slow, soft, piano, a simple beat. Nice fiddle part whining behind the vocal. This song was covered by the Soulsavers, with vocals by Mark Lanegan on the “Sunrise” 7 inch single.

The Brute Choir… is a personal favourite from Viva Last Blues, 1995. Opens on piano melody, dropping to more pensive, mournful tones, with emotional violin adding to that effect. I like this song, partly because the melody is minor key and more affecting. Female backing singers support Oldham on his wonderful lyric. It’s a song full of pain I suspect, which is heard or imaged as “cow-call.” Near the start we learn that the narrator has likely been the brute to someone: “I never hurt someone so young / And I never held someone so sweet.” Hearing the cow-call, “Makes me want to holler with them / All the way down.” We get a few disjointed phrases, things like, “you live so far from town,” “this is what makes a thing last,” “take fear and call it lust,” which all hint at relationship troubles. The voices of the cows, their ‘singing,’ seem to cause the narrator no end of emotional turmoil (“I cannot rest”) and we get the beautifully rendered final lines: “They’re quiet, the choir, their voices go higher / The choir, the choir, their voices go higher.” Those last couple of lines (with Marty Slayton helping out here) sound absolutely amazing on the original precisely because they floated out so beautifully among the sparse instrumentation, and some of that effect is lost here among the warmer instrumentation, enhanced only by Marty Slayton’s beautiful mezzo-country-soprano warbling along. But this is a great song, and probably my favourite thus far.

I Send My Love To You… is from Days In The Wake, 1994. This is what I mean by ‘comedy.’ The original was all lonely forlorn Oldham cramped over his acoustic guitar, whereas here he turns it into a warm, stomping frolicking romp, and the mid-section, which was already a little odd, comes out sounding downright wacko. Oh and there’s actual people quacking here too. Among the bouncy piano rhythm, the narrator is pleading for some love: “I send my love to you … / … I send my pleas to you / Won’t you send some back to me.” He implores her to return her “ways,” her “call,” her “days” so that “when I’m high and square / When I would have you there / You will be.” He’s not in a good way though, singing of his “wounds,” and a bleeding head, until finally his “quacking” leads him to cuss: “fuck the land, and two if by me.” Hey, this might even be my favourite track here, only because it’s so different, and this version seems to suit the lyrics better. Oldham sounds jovial and jolly and like, you can even imagine him making double chins as he sings for no good reason other than to look silly. Love it.

More Brother Rides… is the opening song from Viva Last Blues, 1995. I find it one of the most consistently uninterpretable songs in the whole Palace canon. It depicts a scene of friends sitting around, at night, near a railroad track, chatting, philosophizing. They’re drinking, probably getting high, perhaps coming to the conclusion that there are other ways to be in this life. This allows them to turn into, or revert to the wild feral creatures we all are at heart, perhaps some kind of recognition that people are animals in their inner most being—cultural primitivism—a regular theme in Oldham’s lyrics. Something about this version—it’s quite different too, a slow piano chord, doomy, with a quiet acoustic guitar part, a light pattered drum beat, with real atmosphere. Oldham does a great job fitting the lyrics into a slightly different rhythm and tempo. I like this kind of haunted vibe, with delicate piano flourish, and a moody violin augmenting that inauspicious bass drum beat. Okay, so, between this and “I Send My Love To You,” Oldham gets the balance just right; between interesting-different new version and pleasing-on-the-ear instrumentation and melody.

Agnes, Queen Of Sorrow… this version was issued on 7” single. It’s from the Hope EP, 1994 but also appears on Lost Blues And Other Songs. It’s a song about a couple who seem unable to move on from something. The narrator is willing to wait for his (or her) partner. They’ve received a letter “that the kid had passed away,” which suggests the ‘sorrow’ in the title, and yet they’re still caught in this waiting room of mourning. I’ve already written about this, and I find this version really nice with its swirly pedal steel lines, Marty Slayton’s country-sweet vocals, and that gorgeous fiddle part. Apparently there’s a synthesizer in here too but I can’t pick it out. I liked the original a lot; here, all the song’s rough edges have been burred and buffed and rounded and softened off, but the duet singing and fiddle is what makes it so good.

Viva Ultra… is the second track off Viva Last Blues, 1995 and just as lyrically obscure as “More Brother Rides,” in fact to the point where the words act as little more than physical entities made of vocal sound waves. Here we have sweeping strings, a sax in there somewhere, piano. There’s a “she” in this song, who causes the singer some kind of mental static: “She’s my lifeblood…my secret share … / … Do I hate her?” he asks, and “Do I know her just to hate what she does?” Several more questions directed at a “you” figure, about jealousy and wariness and pleasure and mammals and time and … well, I don’t know and I can’t tell if the narrator does either: “O, it’s okay not to say,” he says and further, “When I wake up / I do not ask her.” Ultimately “it’s better that way …/ That we start our day to day.” Now, while I can’t fathom much meaning here, I no longer have that sense I used to have that Oldham was obfuscating. It sounds as if the words make perfect sense, the way he sings ‘em, and when he reaches the line, “oooooooh it’s okay,” and the sax takes over, you don’t doubt for a second that he knows what he’s on about. Otherwise, the music is all fairly bog-country standard, and I can’t say the strings do much for me; they bring a syrupy feel to the song.

Pushkin… is from Days In The Wake, 1994. Oldham says the song was inspired by a statue of Pushkin that he encountered on a trip to Russia. This sounds vaguely comical too, the way it starts off on a friendly piano melody. Word-wise, it’s a little philosophical I guess. The lines “God is the answer / God lies within” form the lyrical backbone. Pushkin appears in the song twice: “The statue marks the place here / Where Pushkin stook his claim,” and later, “Pushkin rides the lightning.” While I like the melody and style of the song a lot, I don’t get much from the words. When Oldham sings “And you can’t say / That I didn’t learn from you” four times in a row, I still feel lost. Perhaps reading Eugene Onegin would help. The original was always one of Days In The Wake’s more melodic numbers, so I can’t say this version seems all that necessary. There’s a female vocal backing Oldham on the chorus which is a great touch, and at one point he almost lets loose, but not quite. If he’d added a few more whoops and yells and yodel-a-ladies, this might have grown wings and taken flight. Towards the end, four women join, almost gospel style, echoing the lines, “God is the answer / God lies within.” A live version appears on Summer In The Southeast, 2005.

Horses… was the B-side of a 7” single released in 1994 and also appears on Lost Blues And Other Songs, 1997.  The rhythm seems new, a horse-riding song. Some really nice fiddly acoustic guitar at the start. Seems a strange song to choose for this; it’s not actually a “Palace Song” as such, but was written by Sally Timms of the Mekons. Nevertheless, this is a true classic in the Palace catalogue, I love it. Never quite been sure what it’s about exactly, but I detect a song of independence and freedom, a yearning for some return to a looser life in the past, one in which you can ride horses and sleep outside without fear, ride your horse through hoops of flame and all that jazz. ‘Cept that there’s a little old devil called fear on your shoulder whispering, nope, you can’t do any of that, it’s all gone, and you haven’t got the courage to just go for it. Something like that. Oldham opens in a neat chalk-scratchy voice, but it doesn’t last long, and I guess the reason many of these versions don’t live up to former glories is because a fair portion of the emotion is stripped away, firstly by the faster regular 4/4 beats, and secondly because Oldham has to fit these lyrics that were otherwise written to fit with the music specifically, into these new structures, and he loses some of his incredible way with a vocal. While he sings beautifully here, he doesn’t utilize all the subtleties—all the cracks and tics and delicate nuances that you hear on so much of his other work.

Riding… another riding song, this time from There Is No One What Will Take Care Of You, 1993. Possibly the most ‘famous’ of the Palace songs, if only for its theme of incest, revived again in 2012 for The Marble Downs album. “Where are you going riding boy?” he’s been asked, dressed up as he is, and the answer is always, “I’m gonna ride on down to see you,” and a bit later, “I’m gonna bring my sister Lisa,” who happens to be the one he loves “most of all.” This brings accusations of sinfulness, which he doesn’t deny, and so must accept that he now lives in hell. It opens quietly, just guitar and vocal, and apart from a low bass, it pretty much maintains this lightly creepy vibe for the whole song. What makes this work so well is Mary Feiock’s vocal ghosting gently behind Oldham’s. Then there’s the violin slides which bring a creepy sense of atmospherics. When he gets to the lines about loving his sister Lisa, he does that beautiful thing with his voice, and … yeah, this is such a great song. And I see it as one of those songs Oldham could do anything with it; he could record it as 1950s cabaret for all I care, and it would still sound good. The violin really brings the majesty here—reminds me of the Black Heart Procession. “Riding” can also be heard on Lost Blues And Other Songs from 1997.

West Palm Beach… was the A-side of the “Gulf Shores” 7” single from 1994. This is the other of Oldham’s ‘gulf & western’ songs, certainly more ‘western’ on this version than the original. I’ve always dug this song—the original is quite a dreamy affair, evokes a picture of a beach holiday really well, one that doesn’t seem to be going too well. But this new version sounds lame, like weak, watered down. It always had that quality to it, but the music matched the vocal so well on the original. Here, it’s too simple, too bland. In this song, the narrator is in a mood, “the sun is a festering red” and “the break in the weather has got the partner down.” And, generally, he seems kind of beach-bummed out as if the holiday’s gone on too long – “I wasn’t planning to spend so long in town,” he tells us. Yeah, for a good example of why these country versions don’t always work, just listen to this track. It’s kind of boring, partly because it already had that breezy quality. This one sounds like it just might float away. “West Palm Beach” also appears on Lost Blues And Other Songs, 1997.

No More Workhorse Blues… is from 1994’s Days In The Wake. This new version was also released as a 7” single to promote this album. I’ve decided this is all about the wonder of success, a dude who’s achieved something, made some money and is now celebrating, perhaps ironically, his ‘level-up’ from workhorse to racing horse. The irony I would suggest is that whether working or racing, he’s still a horse, and in becoming a racing horse, he’s lost his tongue: “Where is my tongue?” he asks. Did he sell out? It opens with pretty pedal steel lines, a floating violin, a doomy piano part, and Oldham’s questioning wandering vocal. “I am a rich man / I am a very rich man,” he offers us, sadly. And that moaning violin part, and that doom doom doom descending piano chord all starts building beautifully, and that might even be a cello that joins, and David Berman joins on vocals, with his rough deep vocal that almost takes over Oldham’s as the two of them start getting louder and more intense; “And I am your favourite horse.” This is great.

I Am A Cinematographer… was the last track on Days In The Wake, 1994, one last ‘comedy’ track to end. Oldham says the song was inspired by a book called Notes On The Cinematographer by the French film director, Robert Bresson. This song, “more than any other, was about a melody and words that rhymed. [The] song … was a total mystery,” says Oldham. Good. That saves me from having to figure it out then. He also asked the band to make it swing, and it does. The bass line is one of those one-two one-two things, and then there’s a tuba or trumpet blurting along, and let’s face it, tubas are comical instruments, especially with this kind of jaunty vibe. Basically, Oldham sings about being a cinematographer, but he walked away from dependence on New York, everything good, and anything to lean on. And likewise, once when he was a big old bear, he walked away from California ostensibly to find his independence. And I suppose, looking at Oldham’s history with cinema you might find a parallel, because there was a point when he did make a decision to walk away from film and embrace music. But to cap it off, the song finishes with the line, “You can walk away from Louisville alone.” The violin at the end is great too. And yeah, this is one you can sing along to, and we can all be cinematographers. Nice way to end.

So I’ve gone in swings and roundabouts with this record. I was playing it a lot in the two weeks before I wrote up this commentary, and I was really enjoying it, but then I took a break before taking it out to review, and suddenly it all sounded too easy, too soft country rock, and that initial impact had been lost, and I found myself craving to hear the originals again. Only, it seems to me, that these new versions have entered into some kind of reciprocal relationship with the originals, because it’s through playing Sings Greatest Palace Music that the uniqueness of these songs, and their wondrous melodies only become ever more apparent, and so upon returning to the original albums, the songs seem to have developed a new depth of melody, such that those versions sound even better than I’d remembered them. There’s something in that I think, something valuable in re-rendering a track—it forces you to hear it in a new light and give fresh thought to its meaning. And if I’m to put this LP away now and bring it out once a year, I’m pretty sure there’ll be something new to dig in its grooves each time I play it. Next up, it’s one of my favourite Oldham albums, Superwolf.

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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