Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Bonny 2007 – John the Baptist 7″, 2007

john the baptist frontThis 7” contains two tracks recorded live in October 2007 at a concert in California. The A-side is a melding of two separate “John The Baptist” songs, one written by E.C. Ball (1913-1978) an American singer-songwriter, who played country gospel and folk, and the second by English folk-rock troubadour John Martyn (1948-2009). Being two completely separate songs connected easily by a brief bridge, the track is long. It’s live, but it’s recorded nicely, much better than the live tracks we heard on Summer In The Southeast. So the story of John the Baptist is basically this: He declared that Herodias’s marriage to King Herod was unlawful, which displeased Herodias. When her daughter Salome danced for Herod, the King promised her anything she wanted. She consulted her mother who advised her to ask for the head of John the Baptist. Both these versions seem to play good naturedly and with humour on that story.

john the baptist labelJohn The Baptist (Parts One And Two)… In E.C. Ball’s version, John the Baptist “was born in a sense to get loose / From the devil,” and the lyrics focus more on John’s history—his preaching by a river, that he “was born of a woman much too old,” before touching on the story above at the end: “Well he spoke to a ruler very bold / Some words about his wife that knocked her cold / And then she was never satisfied until / The voice of that preaching man was still / By a beheading.” Oldham’s version is country rock, starts softly but picks up speed, a bouncing rhythm with a great chorus: “Well he could have been a general or some nation’s king / He spoke with great authority and his truth in life did sing.” This is sung by Oldham with great countrified glee, a yodel on the word “sing,” hollers and whoops hidden in his voice, very catchy, and a nice mix on the recording. It sounds live but with a smooth sound. We get a guitar solo and a few “wahoo” noises from Oldham, before he naturally merges the final lyric of Ball’s version straight into Martyn’s. The music all slows down to something more moody and rocky, although Martyn’s lyrics are much more playful. In this first-person version, John the Baptist is looking forward to having Salome dance for him and he says that “if you see me smiling and you wonder why / You can bet it’s a private joke between her and I,” and later, “When my head’s cut off and I’m lying on the plate / I’m gonna grin and tell myself it’s been a lovely wait.” He seems a bit perturbed to see his own “Wanted” ad on a nursery wall but at the end of the day, as per the slowly chanted chorus, “everything’s all right” because “I know in my very heart and soul I committed no sin.” The first version is the pop part, whereas the song gets caught up in folk rock, churning guitar parts, rhythm piano, a slightly noisier vibe, with more of a syncopated dynamic. Throughout, Oldham puts a lot of effort into his vocal—little tics and curls, and his voice is in fine fettle here. Bit of crowd noise at the end and fade out. Great track.

john the baptist labelStrange Form Of Life… is a live version of the second track from The Letting Go. It’s one of the more abstruse songs on the album, at least the first verse is, which also doubles as the last verse. This strange form of life records the drama you may go through when falling in love—the difficult path you need to tread for “walking together” is “a hard one” – for example, “kicking through windows, rolling on yards / Heading in loved ones, triggering odds.” Eventually though, the hard way, and the soft kiss and the strangeness will be forgotten once you’ve traversed the nation in order to reach the “dark room.” Yeah. Maybe the lyrics don’t matter so much as the great melody and brilliance of the song. It opens with a whoop and cheer from the audience, with twinkly piano notes, and Oldham singing about “a strange form of life” in a strangely intense voice, quiet, and McCarthy’s here too. Lots more piano on this version. The sound-mix is okay, not great but certainly listenable. The song quickly builds to its chiming electric guitar crescendo with rolling tumbling drums. He gets pretty excited in the second verse, really yelling out the lyrics. “A dark little room / ACROSS THE NATION / You found myself racing … in the dark room,” and we get some awesome build at the end, loud guitar, clattering drums, at least three, maybe four voices singing hard. This works. It’s exciting and intense and definitely strange. This song was also released as a 12″ single.

john the baptist backThis was put out by Domino. It’s worth hearing for the A-side especially. The next 7″ Bonnie single would be the 500-copies run of “Notes For Future Lovers.”

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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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