Tortoise and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, The Brave And The Bold, 2006

IMG_1810So the first album post-Superwolf that I buy, after deciding Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy was the best thing since blue cheese, was this hard-to-love album of covers performed with Chicago ‘post-rock’ outfit Tortoise, a band whose albums I own none of. I had thought I might have grown to like this the first time around, but after playing, and playing, and trying my best to give it the benefit of the doubt, I failed to find anything to love—no sweet spot. Playing it again after six years (I don’t think I’ve played it even once between that initial burst in 2006 and 2012) it seems I was right the first time around. It has one or two goodies, but there’s something missing here—strong melodies for one, any sense of purpose for another, and the old problem of Oldham singing with a band he doesn’t actually belong to, thus causing a mismatch between his vocal style and the music. I say that confidently, because Oldham’s other album of cover songs, Ask Forgiveness is absolutely brilliant. The Brave And The Bold leaves me cold. It left most reviewers cold, as a quick scurry around the internet would tell you. Apparently Oldham allowed fans to suggest songs they’d like to hear for this, although ultimately it was Oldham and Tortoise who made the final decisions.

IMG_1813Cravo E Canela… was written by Brazilian songwriting and singing superstar Milton Nascimento. A quick cut’n’paste of the lyrics via Google translate reveals a song about a brunette gypsy woman who dances like the wind in the womb of night and in the morning sun. She co-exists with certain scents, namely honey, cocoa, cinnamon and cloves. She seems to be mixed up with these tastes and the sounds of the woods and the river. The river also dances, and there you have it. And the music here opens with a punchy and beaty rhythm with fuzzy guitar or organ and Oldham singing in his Spanish accent, double-tracked vocal, a soft dreamy interlude with horns bleating a tunesome textural polish against the fuzzy guitars and warm bass. It’s an insistent rhythm, urgent, almost intense with those whining mariachi horns. Quite melodic, but the weird shift from this to the next track is a bit jarring.

Thunder Road… is the famous and much-covered Bruce Springsteen song from 1975, which admittedly, never having spent much time with Springsteen except as a schoolboy rocking out to a cassette-worn copy of Born In The USA, I’m not familiar with “Thunder Road.” I vaguely recall reading homage to “Thunder Road” in Nick Hornby’s book 31 Songs many years ago. So it’s the template kids-on-the-run song. The song is a narrative that seems to begin with the ending. Young Bruce (Will) has pulled up out front of Mary’s house and beckons her into his car, and here she comes dancing “across the porch as the radio plays.” The lyrics desperately try to downplay the romanticism of the situation (boy arriving in his car to take girl away, or as Bruce puts it, “riding out tonight to case the promised land,” or to where “heaven’s waiting on down the tracks,”) and I guess they’re going to take Thunder Road to get there. But instead it comes off as quintessential romanticist escapism. What amuses me is that Boy tells Girl to “climb in back.” Apparently front’s not good enough for her. At the end he tells her, via imperative form, “So Mary climb in,” because theirs is “a town full of losers.” So I’ve just been listening to the original on Youtube and it sounds like a more down-to-earth Meatloaf to me—soaring vocals, dramatic piano, poignant dynamic chord changes—the formula for an epic. Except that with Bruce’s hoarse vocals, I’m not sure how anyone ever made out the lyrics. So, how does the Tortoise/Bonnie collaboration shape up? Big swirly keyboard sounds doing some epic but ironic opening before drums enter softly, then bass, and heavy but spartan guitar noodling. What lets the song down is Oldham’s soft fragile vocal which doesn’t suit the heavier tones of the actual music. I dunno—I imagine this as some kind of power ballad which I’m automatically going to reject and so an ironic tinny keyboard-where-the-guitars-should-be sound is hardly going to win me over. Song seems to drift and go on too long without any hooks and I just don’t see Oldham carrying any of the pathos or power or portentousness with his voice. The words and hence their meanings seem lost beneath the capricious nature of the music which has an annoying soft/loud dynamic. Awful, truly awful. Hate it, and again we get another jarring change…

It’s Expected I’m Gone… to a Minutemen song, one of Oldham’s early favourite bands. This track hails from Double Nickels On The Dime, their 1984 double album magnum opus. The original is an odd minimalist number with chopped up fragments of lyrics – “I don’t want to hurt / See my position was here / I mean as it was / I was / So this led to the downfall of man / I can make seconds feel hours” – and a very hip jerky stop-start rhythm section that’s been sampled and stolen by various 90s bands. To my ears the original sounds like proto-Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Tortoise’s version is full of static and distortion, a heavy sludgy guitar/bass thrust, and I say ‘thrust’ because the song’s core sounds like an industrial engine grinding away, some heavy bass-speaker threatening low end, and again, Oldham’s voice feebly wandering in among this boiler room of tectonic electronic mish-mash. The music’s good, don’t get me wrong, but as a song for Will Oldham to sing? Nope. Ugh. I means it sounds like an avante new wave band trying to do industrial punk and comes off as a horrible clash of genres. Some of these things just don’t go together.

Daniel… is a classic Elton John song, reaching number one on the US charts in 1973. According to the song’s co-writer, Bernie Taupin, the song’s about a Vietnam war veteran who’s been blinded and so travels to Spain in order to avoid going home and the people there. Has a rather easy listening seventies soft rock kind of melody with a brief falsetto moment on the chorus. The simple narrative about Daniel traveling on a plane to Spain is sung by the point of view of his younger brother. Tortoise and Bonnie certainly do something radically different to the song, turning it into something much bleaker and vaguely digital sounding. The weird music effects (like some kind of post-industrial broken down wasteland) are pretty neat this time, and that extends to the crumbly effect thrown over Oldham’s voice. What it all comes down to though is the quietly beautiful melody and those peaks on the falsetto. There’s a pulsing quality to the music that makes it sounds like it’s crescendoing towards something momentous, which it does, albeit not without another touch of humour when Oldham’s falsetto threatens to break beneath the weight of the moment. This is probably the best track on the album, although it’s pretty bleak and a whole album of this kind of sound would’ve been hard to take. “Your eyes have died / But you see more than I,” and then we get Oldham reaching for his highest register: “Daniel, you’re a star / On the face of the sky.” Great stuff.

Love Is Love… is by Lungfish, a supposedly ‘emo’ band from Baltimore who began in 1988. The original is a piece of dirgey slow-fi punkish thrash, with a singer rabbiting on about how “love is love” followed by various situations where love is love under circumstances which are hard to discern. Didn’t sound like anything special to me after a quick listen to the original on Youtube. The lo-fi punkish thrash is replaced by a heavy electronic buzz and a rather dullard drum machine beat. Chords merge and morph among the heavily buzzed out rhythm and Oldham sounds like he’s squawking. “Love is love at the root of the grave.” Some silly keyboard flourishes + a strange flute sound give this a vaguely futuristic tone, but it’s really not much of a song and the lyrics—I mean who would know, or care? I can hear a rhythm that sounds stolen from something like “A Strange Day” from The Cure’s Pornography album. Rather throwaway and dull. And cold too – many of these songs, even the better ones, have a cold, almost inhuman quality about them.

IMG_1814Pancho… except maybe this one. The song is credited to Don Williams from a 1998 recording although it seems the song was written by someone called Dave Hanner. It’s a song of friendship sung by one horse riding ranch hand, The Cisco Kid, to his Mexican sidekick Pancho who wears a sombrero, the former, a character from his eponymously titled comic book, and the latter, a character introduced in the movie series about The Cisco Kid. In this song, for some reason (that I can’t be bothered digging up) the Cisco Kid has said something to lose Pancho’s friendship, and so the song is a plea to win him back.  It seems to come from a point of view many years later, because there’s a lot of reminiscing about the “good times” when they rode horses together and chased rustlers. This is pretty stuff, warm, melodic (reminds me of a Beatles song that I can’t quite place) and definitely suits Oldham’s soft voice. Guitar, a simple pop beat. There’s a female vocal supporting, a sweet soft voice. Fiddly rising fast fingerwork for the bridge between chorus and verse. Yes, this stands a close second to “Daniel” simply because all the parts seem to work together, although even then, it feels a bit like cover-by-numbers.

That’s Pep!… is a Devo song from 1983 from their album Freedom Of Choice (one of my favourites in the 80s) which seems to give us several definitions of what ‘pep’ means. It’s a song of positivity then, although in Devo parlance that usually means there’s a mickey being taken, somewhere. Some examples of pep then, include “Vigor vim vitality and punch / The ability to act on a certain hunch,” “A heart that never forgets to sing,” and “A spirit that helps when another’s down.” Opens with heavy rude thick electronic sounds, presumably more irony, echoing something of a joke Devo aesthetic. The music and arrangements here are all pretty good. We’ve got speed, more fuzz guitar, some strange echo effects on the vocal, and a great melody, but again, in Oldham’s voice it still feels and sounds wrong to my ears. There’s a false finish halfway through (the second time they’ve done that on this LP).  The only time this version redeems itself is on the floating-away effect they put on Oldham’s voice. I have to say, at least there is a fairly consistent sound palette across the album—a slightly dry, grey, colourless sound, a little cold, distant, and wasted melancholic.

Some Say [I Got Devil]… is originally by Melanie Safka, born 1947, an American singer, normally known more popularly as ‘Melanie.’ She was part of the Greenwich Village scene in the later sixties. This song is from her 1971 album Gather Me. I just took a listen to the original and it sounds amazing. What a great song to cover. She sounds a little like a cross between Billie Holiday and Joanna Newsome. It’s quite a spooky song (with strings). She’s singing about being “a girl in trouble” but keeps protesting that she’s not in danger, even though others try to sell her some kind of protection, “all kinds of things to save me / From hurting like a woman / And crying like a baby.” Sounds like proto-feminism. The opening words, “Some say I got devil / Some say I got angel,” sound like a plea to everyone who wants a piece of her to keep away and let her be herself, which for the time being has to be concealed in the music, because it’s still a man’s world, even though she is qualified “for a part in your dream.” Or maybe it’s a love song. It’s a goodie, and I’m sorry to say, that the Tortoise/Bonnie version just renders it utterly nondescript. Argh. What a pity. It’s so dreary and pointless. Just warbling guitar, a faint keyboard-string sound, and a vocal part with none of Melanie’s touching despondent or fearful ennui. Taken as a standalone, a 7” single, this might have been more interesting, but I have to say, it always seemed completely lost to me, here in the middle of Side Two.

The Calvary Cross… was written by Richard Thompson and it first appears on his 1974 album I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight. It’s a pretty strange song to the uninitiated. The title refers to the cross upon which a certain original Christian died although this song is all about a “pale-faced lady” who has both her claws and her light in the singer. She doesn’t sound like good luck. In fact she seems to be mocking the singer – “You can be my broom-boy … Everything you do, you do for me.” Thompson’s version is a slow ponderous thing with a weird nervous edge to it, but quietly beautiful. I just realized for the first time how much the kiwi singer Don McGlashan sings exactly like Richard Thompson. As for Oldham, again, a weak watery vocal buried amidst heavier instrumentation. Female support vocal but too faint. The music here is all very slow, Chicago post-avante folk anyone? The beat feels like it’s plodding. No rhythmic thrust, no love. The chorus is good, I’ll grant them that. “Everything you do / You do for me.” Some nice ‘Gregorian chant’ effects after the chorus, which add interest. I can’t explain it, but with Oldham, I just don’t ‘hear’ the lyrics. I don’t feel compelled to listen to the words at all. Disappointing. That’s two weaker tracks in a row. Okay, so they get the slow ponderous feel kind of right, but it still lacks that human warmth.

On My Own… is from a band called Quixotic, a weird rock band from Washington. This song appears on their 2002 release Mortal Mirror. The original is like a funeral march, a slightly ominous chant with slow drums and female wail-singing. This version, which I’ve never really paid attention to despite numerous spins, is all groany and deep, like weird musical monsters from far below. It has an underwater-gong like feel, and despite sounding completely out of tune, I almost like it. In fact that’s what’s so unlikeable about the album as a whole – things seem to be out of tune. Is this because Oldham just doesn’t have the vocal prowess to carry these tunes properly? Or is it deliberate? Is the point to turn these songs into some strange beamed-back-to-earth-from-an-ancient-satellite schtick? Maybe that’s what’s wrong with the album—no one knows what to make of it. It doesn’t gel into anything. We crave form, and we recognize that formlessness is a kind of form too, whereas The Brave And The Bold hovers unsatisfyingly somewhere between these two, in an ugly limbo.

IMG_1811This album’s a dud. Uninspiring. Hard to see the point. I’m not even sure of the title. The brave and the bold? The insipid and uninspired more like. I wonder if I’ve missed some crucial piece of irony but frankly even irony ain’t enough to save this from drowning in its own incongruence. Fortunately for us fans, Bonnie would release one of his best albums in the same year, The Letting Go.

IMG_1812

Inner record sleeve illustration

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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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