Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Strange Form Of Life 12″, 2007

Strange form of life frontThis is the fourth single to be released from The Letting Go album. Okay, I’ve already written about this song twice—once in my album review and once for the live version on the B-side to the “Bonny 2007” tour release 7” single. I’m glad we’ve reached the end of this 12″ series (four altogether, three of them also released on 7″). It was the only time an Oldham album has been so relentlessly plugged with singles—horrible old school 12″ singles with album-versions and live tracks and demos for B-sides instead of new songs. In fact after this, there were very few, if any, more singles released on vinyl to go with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy albums, mp3s becoming the preferred format for singles. Stand-alone 10″s unconnected with any album would soon become the norm.

strange form of life labelStrange Form Of Life… so let’s recap: We’ve got a “strange form of life,” which may or may not be the form life takes when one is busy falling in love. Strangeness is evident in Oldham’s choice of actions that he lists, such as “kicking through windows, rolling in yards / Heading in loved ones, triggering odds,” and then adds “a strange one” for emphasis, as if to suggest “odds” doesn’t mean ‘chances’ but rather ‘oddballs.’ That’s only the beginning. Then things get hard (as in difficult) to find “a path walking together.” At least all this difficulty and strangeness is offset by the chance to “bend down and kiss twice / The softest lips.” Mm. But afterwards “you find myself racing” to get to the “dark room” where you forget “the strange and the hard and the soft kiss.” Got all that? Very roundabout kind of way to say something and I guess there’s a multitude of ways you could interpret the song, given that it’s like a painting that’s had much of the paint stripped off—Oldham revisiting his minimalist tendencies of the Palace days. Quiet opening, soft rim shots, Dawn McCarthy “ahhing” coolly far in the background, and a slowly entering guitar part until McCarthy joins Oldham on the second verse, after which the song gains momentum and volume briefly. It’s quite a floaty song, albeit it does have a definite structure, but the soft dreamy melody has a flying-over-your-head feel. Makes me feel like I’m standing high up on the side of a deep valley looking across to the mountains on the other side. Awesome song. There’s a live version of this on the Bonny 2007 single also released in 2007.

IMG_1974New Partner… is an old Palace song from Viva Last Blues, 1995. This is a lovely little version, just Oldham and an acoustic guitar, and he seems in fine fettle, affecting a lovely floating vocal, a little croaky, a little slip on the mic here and there, so it must be live, like a demo version or in a radio studio, but a crystalline recording, or in Oldham’s words, “exquisitely grand.” “It’s a payment which precludes the having of fun,” he sings, “And you were always on my mind,” and the joy of the clarity of this version is that he is definitely singing “were always on my mind” (rather than “are”). It’s a nice enough version, a touch of country-style in his vocal, although it sounds a bit stop/start in places, slightly stuttered, not quite a smooth rendition, and Oldham is clearly adding new feeling into parts of the song, but he sounds positively joyous at the end: “Yes I’ve got a new partner riding with me / Yes I’ve got a new partner NOW,” and he whistles a little at the end. Nice. There are other versions of the song on Sings Greatest Palace Music and Is It The Sea?

The Sun Highlights The Lack In Each… is another Palace song dating back to 1996 from the Arise Therefore album. This is obviously from the same session as “New Partner,” because there’s no break between the two tracks—just an acoustic guitar again. He goes straight into this song, which is cool to hear outside of its Arise Therefore aesthetic. I can’t say I can even recognize the melody apart from the chorus, which is completely different to the original where Oldham wavered all over the show on his vocal. Here he trips out into some improvised wailing, the more confident Bonnie-singer taking his voice wherever he wants and doing it all in perfect key. I can’t help feeling that his placing of new emphases on key phrases are a fake attempt to add poignancy though. “Condition is uncertain and likely to go.” Still, the song ain’t got much of a tune, and when it ends, it disappears quickly off the memory-radar, “guttering on my things like a wave.”

The Seedling… is from The Letting Go, although this is a solo version, played note by note on electric guitar, with acoustic strums, quite different from the album version. It’s yet another polysemous kind of song when it comes to figuring out what Oldham’s on about—this time something about a secret girl-child, a seedling, that the narrator keeps hidden but which he has made “grow.” He has fatherly instincts such as wanting to “shelter her” when it’s cold. Whether she’s a real child or some product of his imagination is difficult to say, but certainly there’s great drama about whether the “birdies” know about his hidden life and his “seedling.” Without all the strings and McCarthy’s incredible contribution the song can’t help sounding like a lonely demo, although on the chorus, “Birdies say I got no children / Birdies never know / In my hidden life I’ve made a seedling grow,” Oldham makes a valiant stretch with his voice to hit that hard edge of his falsetto and at least recreate the dramatic screeching of the violin-enhanced original. Nevertheless this raw, stripped-down version draws more attention to the very curious lyrics which express some kind of fear or exasperation or regret at a mistake. It ends quickly without the repeating chorus as per the album version.

strange form of life backThe next mini-slab of Bonnie magic would be an extremely limited edition hard-to-find 7″ single called “Notes For Future Lovers.”

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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