Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Lay & Love 12”, 2007

Here we have the third single in support of The Letting Go. Seems kind of odd that Oldham rarely releases promo singles and then suddenly four for one album. But they come with a plethora of B-sides so it kinda makes it fun to hear ‘em. The great thing about this one is that finally, we hear Oldham brushing up against Dylan for the first time on record, and he treats the songs, both chosen presumably for their Mexican connections, with utmost reverence, pulling out wonderful studio performances that pay homage and yet are rendered in Oldham’s unique way, including his messing with the lyrics on “Goin’ To Acapulco.”

Lay And Love… is a love song in the manner of a number of Oldham-style love songs, which is to say, things are never as simple as they appear. Love in Oldham songs is always tied up with the whole package. I like the rhythm section in this song. There may be a low flat bass drum in there, but the other ‘percussive’ noises sound like low rumbling, a rattle of distant thunder, very soft and gentle. Dawn McCarthy sings lead with Oldham almost throughout the whole song, and I guess this is where he first began to understand something about the feminine/masculine mix of voices and how that could bring out something deeper in his songs, as we saw on “What Are You?” from Superwolf. With a simple plaintive melody, the two narrators examine the lover/partner from three perspectives in this song: “From what I’ve seen,” “From what I hear,” and “From what I know.” The first two rely on physical sense receptors, the third on intuition. From what he’s seen, she’s “magnificent,” she “fight[s] evil,” and her “every act is spectacular.” A delicate noodly guitar line joins from behind for the second verse. From what he’s heard, she is “generous,” she “make[s] sunshine and glory” bringing light wherever she goes. But wait, what’s this? He knows that she’s “terrified,” that she has “mistrust running through” her and that her “smile is hiding something awful.” Doesn’t this sound like love though? You admire all these features of someone, but whence you get to know them all these other things surface and we get human complexity, which is ultimately what the narrator loves: each verse finishes with the sentiment: “It makes me lay here and love you.” He summarizes nicely in the last verse: “I’m filled with violent and red and blue / I have a feeling from what I do / That you might lay here and love me too.” Everything about this song is near perfect, from the twin voices soaring together on the third or fourth syllable of every line, to Dawn McCarthy’s lovely soprano, and the intertwining of that with Oldham. From what I hear, this sounds magnificent. The song also appears on Funtown Comedown, 2009.

Senor… is a Bob Dylan song from his Street Legal album of 1978. Here we have a very quiet simple Oldham vocal, lightly sung, floating above a soft delicate acoustic guitar all the way through. This is the kind of cover Oldham does so well, where he takes a song, keeps the instrumentation to a minimum and allows his voice to do all the real work of interpretation, such is the incredible power of that voice when he sings and thinks about the words at the same time. It comes across as an incredibly sad song. The narrator seems to be in search of something, though he’s not sure of which two alternatives he’s heading with “Senor” – is it “Lincoln Country Road or Armageddon?” You can imagine this song appealing to Oldham with a line like, “How long are we gonna be ridin’?” I’d have to do some pretty wild guesswork to figure the whole song out but I’m getting some kind of doomsday vibe in which the singer questions the purpose of the American industrial-military complex, perhaps. But why does he sing his questions to “Senor”? Perhaps he’s referencing the Spanish Civil War, asking for advice. The drama is carried in the mixing of major and minor chords in the melodic structure. I find this very moving. “Well the last thing I remember before I stripped and kneeled / Was that trainload of fools bogged down in a magnetic field / A gypsy with a broken flag and a flashing ring / She said, “Son, this ain’t a dream no more, it’s the real thing.” At one point there’s a faint use of distant echo, a neat effect, used on only two words. Nice to hear Oldham stripped back to just voice and guitar, doing powerful mixed feelings of heartbreak, dread, warning and loss in the minor key.

Going To Acapulco… is another Bob Dylan song dating back to The Basement Tapes of 1967. This opens on strummed banjo, a slow military type rolling beat on the snare and a piercing clarinet melody. The song has that dreary New Orleans funereal feel about it, with saxophone, clarinet, trombone and tuba parts, all playing slowly along in the background. It opens with Oldham intoning in murky, barely audible tones: “Come over … You know I love you / Mm Hm / In fact I even wrote a song for you…” I know I’ve heard that somewhere but I can’t place it. Over that plays a loud whimsical clarinet melody. The pace is slow throughout. Meanwhile those brass instruments play warbles and atonal shrieks, odd contrapuntal melodies and Oldham sings it slowly slipping in and out of falsetto modes, his voice performing a weird balancing act between amused and acerbic. He changes quite a few words and lines here and there in the lyric which is all about visiting a woman named Rose Marie, but there’s enough openly suggestive nuances in here to hint that she’s probably a prostitute: “She never does me wrong / She puts it to me plain as day / And gives it to me for a song.” The song’s lackadaisical pace becomes ever more apparent on the chorus, “Goin’ to Acapulco / Goin’ on the run / Goin’ down to see some girl / Goin’ to have some fun.” Then we get the last verse which seems a bit schoolboy pun-laden silly: “Like every time you know when the well breaks down / I just go pump on it some / And Rose Marie, she likes to go to big places / And just sit there waitin’ for me to come.” This song features “the usual debauched narrator, rambunctious harmonies, and euphemistic ribaldry,” says Clinton Heylin writing of the Basement Tapes lyrics. As a Dylan cover this is exquisitely performed, and yet different enough for Oldham’s band to take charge of the song and make it their own. On first listen, the pace seems frustratingly slow, but after a few spins, if you pay attention to the chaotic nature of the brass section, the song develops into something pretty cool.

This is well worth hunting down. It’s the only time Oldham’s covered Dylan on vinyl and while he changes a few lyrics in the last song, it’s nice that he’s revived two songs that to me seem so quintessentially 70s, while keeping the songs tied to their emotional cores, perhaps even deepening the theme with his honest performances. One more 12″ single, “Strange Form Of Life” would be released from The Letting Go, also in 2007.

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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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