Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Summer In The Southeast, 2005

For me, this is the least likable of Oldham’s three live albums of the noughties. In fact, it’s the least likable Oldham album full stop. The mix isn’t great, although it’s a good opportunity to hear the full electric Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy live show. The versions here are often harder and way more full on than their respective album versions, and sometimes the tunes are barely recognizable. The songs are taken from a summer tour, whittled down from the recordings of 16 different concerts across four states: Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and North Carolina. I wasn’t able to stomach this record for more than five or six listens before I gave up. Doesn’t do much for me. Read on if you want to hear the sound of Alan Bumstead in a bad mood…

Gatefold sleeve lyric sheet

Master And Everyone… is from the 2003 album of the same name. The song is about a guy who’s been dumped, although unlike the mournful lover on Oldham’s “Ohio River Boat Song,” this fellow is bitter, pretending that he’s happy to be free. This version is completely different to the original. It opens on a quietly strummed electric guitar, low bass, with Oldham in croaky voice, improvising a ‘tune’ to the words; “I’m now free / Master and everyone / Servant to all and servant to none.” It continues in this vein for a minute until we get to the “bird freed from it’s cage,” line and the song takes flight, a heavy electric dirge. Oldham’s really creaky here, and the whole song turns into a heavy power-roar, a bit gluggy of sound, chuggy of rhythm, a messy mix, and Oldham’s voice sounds like it’s split into three different parts, a frog, a sparrow and a sleepy lion. The song powers down and Oldham yells, “I got a clown in my eyes, makes me laugh.” Another live version appears on Is It The Sea? 2008.

Pushkin… is from 1994’s Days In The Wake. This is one of Oldham’s more elusive songs, a song that name-checks ‘Pushkin’ several times, where he sings a lot about how “God is the answer” and that “God lies within.” This is sparser, with diggly bits of guitar, piano, and a woman called Pink Nasty singing on the chorus. Oldham’s voice here is thin, razorish, bird-like and wolf-like at the same time, while Matt Sweeney also provides backing vocals. But the dynamics of the recording are weak, some parts louder, some parts quieter, and the melody of the original is crushed to some extent beneath the thunderous bass and electric guitar. It’s okay, but nothing special. Often Oldham shifts into squawk mode to get above the noisier parts of the song. He even whoops at one point. “Well guess who rides the lightning, yeaeahyeahyaah” he yells. Ugh, this is hard to enjoy.

Blokbuster… is from the Hope EP, but is also the B-side to the “Agnes” single from 2004. You can hear a few audience ‘yeahs’ and ‘woohs’ and here’s another number that sounds not much like the original. A churgling tocka tocka rhythm, submerged and muffled, murky. “I was waiting to go / I was waiting for thee.” A song about a guy returning to get his girl but she doesn’t want him anymore. “He thought I was washing my hair,” she says, “But I was washing my hands of him.” The narrator sings, “Oh Blokbuster, O Blok … I was waiting for thee.” The song dives and turns, twists through different guitar parts, David Bird on ‘left guitar,’ Matt Sweeney on ‘right guitar’. I’m not much of a fan of this kind of live album. It’s all sort of jammy and scruffy, in noisy disarray, although the tune carries through okay. I’m sure it would have been a lot better being in the audience rather than stuck listening to this awfully recorded and mixed record.

Wolf Among Wolves… is from Master And Everyone, 2003. It’s all about wanting to be loved for who you are, not having to curb your less palatable side, the wolf-side, and also about not wanting to live a life of safe domestic bliss, something the song’s narrator says he has never known. This starts slowly, bits of guitar, ambling, meandering gently, with Oldham asking “Why must I live and walk unloved as what I am?” in his squeaky voice, “Why can’t I be loved as what I am / A wolf among wolves / And not as a man among men.” This goes really slow, affecting some kind of poignancy. I love the “doo doo doo” part, mildly ridiculous, followed by group barking and wolf-howling, which just sounds like a bad joke. “Well she craves a pink sock / That she can go in / Some warm and sweaty cage / That I have never seen / Not in my little life / And boy not even in my dreams.” The original is a favourite but like most of the songs here, live and loud it becomes an unpleasant listen. Give me studio Will any day, or acoustic guitar Will, but this Superwolf electric style needs to be mixed perfectly for it to work. Disappointing. Two other live versions of the song are available. Is It The Sea? 2008 and Funtown Comedown, 2009.

May It Always Be… is from Ease Down The Road, a sweet love song with a simple sentiment: May our love never die, and though we fight, may that fighting also be part of our love for each other. This version is also much heavier than the original. Like really fast and dirgey and hard, and the lead vocal is taken up by Pink Nasty; she has a punkish way of singing, how I imagined Patti Smith might sound before I’d ever heard her. Oldham sings background, the two guitarists sound like they’re competing in a road race. The vocals merge into the general melee. We get a solo section, which again, is all performed at a rough as guts grungy frenetic pace, whoops and hollers. The audience loved it. I didn’t.You can hear a better version of this on the country-esque Funtown Comedown, 2009.

Break Of Day… is also from Ease Down The Road, 2001. It’s a bit more complicated this song—a love song too, of sorts, although he seems to have been left alone, pining for his lover’s return, hoping he’ll have someone to share his bed with at break of day. We’re back to Oldham. His voice sounds a bit damaged to my ears on these recordings. I mean I like his cracked fragile voice, but here it sounds hoarse, and I don’t think it suits the heavier electric vibe too well. Again, when the chorus kicks in, the bass and swoony backing vocalists (at least two more of them), along with the whole rushing onslaught of electric guitars, renders the voices submerged. Here too, the sound field is a bit mushy. I don’t really see the point of this recording, other than perhaps to showcase Sweeney’s guitar talents, but it seems to me that all the subtle beauty and poignancy of these songs is brushed aside in favour of some noisy rock and roll-making. Which is fine, but like most live albums, rather than achieving something positive it only places Oldham in a poor light. “Well I hate myself when I’m alone / It’s just with you that I feel okay,” and in the next line Oldham seems to forget the words. We get a wiry guitar part. I grew to love this song after listening to Ease Down The Road a lot, but not this version.

A Sucker’s Evening… is from Arise Therefore, 1996. It’s one of Oldham’s most vicious or black-humoured songs, all about laying waste to the narrator’s lover’s ex-boyfriend. Good to hear this one in a different style. It actually works for some reason, perhaps because the lyrics tell such an awful narrative. “What, with one of your arms / I could get busted up / Don’t come around here … / Cos this is a house of water / And you’ll be cold and soaking wet.” The guitars pick up, wah-wah, more intense, grungy, muffled but at least we can hear Oldham singing, “You hold his arms while I fuck him / I’ll fuck him with something / Because the fuck, he deserves it,” and you have to laugh at that bleak, dark, twisted lyric. Eventually the stormy build of guitars and bass almost drowns out the singing. It’s good to hear a Palace song rendered in this way, but it seems like a minor sacrilege to destroy the BPB songs beneath the roar.

Nomadic Revery… is from I See A Darkness, 1999, and seems to be about the way the narrator’s daydreams take on a life of their own, that daydreaming can be used to allay negative thoughts, and that daydreaming inevitably leads to carnal desire. The guitar is kept quieter here, just Oldham singing about his dreams; “Today a thing was burst / If you’re not with me tomorrow / That would be the worst / O all around / All around / It’s kept together / Moving all around.” The guitar remains low, jiggery, while Oldham gives us a decent cracked-voice performance. One gets the feeling that his voice was never made to compete with a band and I can’t help wondering if that’s the reason he says time and again how much he hates playing live. One would assume after a decade-long career you’d get used to playing live. This sounds like an I See A Darkness track done in Superwolf style. Not bad, not great either. Lots of boisterous yells and whoops from the crowd.

I See A Darkness… is from the album of the same name, 1999. It’s sung as a plea to a friend to help him through some very dark times, some awful darkness that plagues him and which he can’t control. “Well you’re my friend,” with piano and Nasty answering the first two lines, “Well can’t you see (what’s inside of me).” It’s a slowed down version, weak, insipid of melody, and failing to hit the right emotional tones, although Oldham does bring his voice up into really fragile territory. “And you know I have this drive / To live I won’t let go.” Loud jarring guitar stabs a space between words. Bits of piano, shuffly drums, all very sparse and barely holding together. When Oldham gets to the chorus, one or more of the band members join, flatly, awfully. Ugh. This is painful. The last part about ‘lighting up for ever…my best unbeaten brother’ is better, but the dynamic is just horrid. There’s a live version on Is It The Sea? 2008, and a new version on the Will Oldham On Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy EP, 2012.

O Let It Be… is one of the few times we hear a Joya (1997) track live. It’s a difficult song to get a grip on; something about getting rid of someone, a friend, or someone you don’t want to hang around with any more, but the title suggests chilling out, not worrying. This starts off heavy, fast, loud, electric, intense, a whoop from the crowd, a nervy vocal, “What’s on the other side of that big looking hill?” asks Oldham. This is virtually unrecognizable from its original version at first, although I have to say this is the best song on the LP so far. The ‘chorus’ part sounds great, Oldham yelling beautifully behind the dirge, but in a great way, intensely so: “Oooh I can always shout it … [something something inaudible].” The guitar wah-wah sort of gets mixed up together with the rhythm guitar and twists, starts doing that turning thing, and the whole loud rawness of the sound works really well here, partly because of Oldham’s disturbing warble. The sound is still a bit messy but at least they rock out properly with none of that annoying stop/start, soft/loud thing we heard on Disk One. Even the end has a classic burnout breakdown thing. And the crowd love it.

Beast For Thee… is from Superwolf, 2005. This is my favourite Oldham song, though not this version. The narrator offers himself as a willing beast to his lover, to ‘toil’ for her his whole life, if only she could be kind to him. Hm, I love this song, and they perform it exactly as per the Superwolf version albeit with a much weaker quality of sound, but he has Sweeney on backing vocals, and the amazing guitar part is played perfectly. They lose the tune briefly on “leave worldly things behind,” but when Oldham gets to “love in some way you choose / God’s plan can easily bruise / One bone and bloody mass we fuse,” he puts on that precariously fragile voice of his, ripped, torn, the sound of sorry. The dreamy quality of the original is mostly lost here and the organ part is gone too, so the melody is watered down. Still an amazing, affecting song. “Beast For Thee” also appears on the 2012 EP, Will Oldham On Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy.

Death To Everyone… is from I See A Darkness, 1999. It’s a straightforward song reminding us rather plainly that we’re all gonna die, and that fact is what makes life worth living and ‘hosing’ [shagging] much more fun. The melody opens up slightly differently to the original; strange, just drums, quiet guitar, vocal riding over top clearly; rhythmically the song has been altered. At the chorus, the guitarists crank up the volume, stabbing away at their axes, and the whole irritating soft/loud dirge dynamic kills the song, and then we get a very weird chorus section, the music all drops out and the whole band: “Death to everyone / Wooooh! / Death to everyone / Woooh!” The noisier parts are kind of cool, and thrashy, and Oldham’s voice railing through the mix like a male banshee adds interest, then we get that all-group vocal, “la la da la da / Woooh!” Amusing, and bloody awful at the same time. Here too Oldham’s voice sounds like he’s at the end of a tour; it’s ripped into shreds. “Death to everyone is gonna come / And it makes hosing much more fun / Death / Death / Death,” he shouts over the semi-violent mess. It’s raw, and I know there’s plenty of people who like their music like this. Live, in the venue, I’m sure it sounds great. What is a live recording though? A document, that’s about it. A document to be filed away and pulled out in the interests of research, perhaps. No, that’s not entirely true. Both Oldham’s other live efforts are great.

Even If Love… is from Master And Everyone, 2003. This is a sort of love song, but one that comes with lots of caveats—that love, though fraught with difficulties, is something that can’t be helped when it hits: “Love will protect you,” but also, “a monster will get you,” which is reminiscent of the whole theme of the Superwolf album. A single hi-hat ticking away, gurgly bits of guitar, Oldham singing weakly, faintly, or recorded that way at least. Very quiet. Song stays in this vein until the end, short, big audience cheer. Waste of time here.

I Send My Love To You… is from Days In The Wake, 1994. It seems to be a song of unrequited love. The failure to receive love back drives the narrator crazy. Wow, this must surely be a different venue. The quality is vastly superior. Much louder, richer, stronger voice, bouncy rhythm, catchy as all hell, like the version off Sings Greatest Palace Music. We get some “woo woo woo” barking sounds, a country breakdown, and Oldham putting some wired effort into his vocal. “Fuck the land and two if by me,” and that “me” comes out sounding like he’s been punched in the gut. When everyone joins for the chorus, the mix starts going a bit haywire. Lots of country coos and woahs.

Take However Long You Want… is the B-Side to the “Patience” 7” single. It also appears on Guarapero: Lost Blues 2.  This song is an odd one, the narrator telling someone that she can “wait forever by the trees alone / But I won’t be sorry when you’re gone.” This is quiet, sad, mournful, until brief bursts of heavy electric guitar puncture the atmosphere. The original was really quiet, just Oldham and quietly strummed acoustic guitar, not a strong song, so it’s good to hear a song like this being played live, although they haven’t really improved it in any discernable way. More falsetto cooing, country cowboy whoops, and an audience joining in like it’s one big joke. American audiences letting loose. Oldham announces in a crazy TV host voice to all the musicians in his crew. “There’s Peter Townshend in the back.”

Madeleine Mary… is from I See A Darkness, 1999. It’s a kind of spooky sea-shanty mystery song, with a curse buried somewhere in its lines. A woman becomes a femme fatale, a mermaid of some kind that steals overly curious sailors to a watery grave. This opens weirdly, “Oh oh oh oh,” the dynamic punchy, heavy rhythm sounds good, and we have Oldham and Nasty on vocals, thumping piano, heavy interstitial guitars, but the spookiness of the original is completely lost under all the heavy messy noise. What a disaster. Such a great song: it is a neat effect with several voices singing “Burly says if we don’t sing / Then we won’t have anything,” but I find the loud rock interjections painful, especially followed by a complete shutdown and back to solo Oldham on the microphone: He’s hardly singing it in usual tune, off-kilter voice, but when they sing, “A tune that all can carry,” you feel like yelling out, “What tune?” I don’t go much in for these soft/loud songs. It’s tiresome. One concert ends, incongruously, because we get one more song…

Ease Down The Road… is from the album of the same name, 2001. It’s all about having sex with some man’s wife, and trying not to feel guilty about it. The acoustic guitars here are nice, the mix not too bad, and hey, it even sounds quite similar to the original. “But beauty was my treasure then / As through the hills I drove her / And I taught her that another man would have made love to her / Doo doo doo doo.” This song worked well in its original form. Average here. A silvery sound. Shuffly drums. Simple bass, “a little guilt and some guilt spilt / It added to our load.” Then noisy guitars increasing volume, bass booming.

Live albums eh? Where would we be without them? We’d be forever thinking our favourite artists always sounded heavenly, but no, they have to force these poorly recorded, poorly mixed concerts on us and remind us that they are human after all. Oldham’s best when he’s intimate, as on most of his studio albums. Put him out there with a loud electric band and something goes horribly wrong. The next full length Bonnie LP would be the collaboration with Tortoise on 2006’s The Brave And The Bold.

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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