Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy with Harem Scarem and Alex Neilson, Is It The Sea? 2008

is it the sea frontThis is a double live album from a concert in Edinburgh recorded by the BBC and released on heavy duty vinyl. The sound quality is of a very high standard, the drums for example, can be heard in the finest of detail, but one does wish the enthusiastic sound engineer had turned down the volume between songs. It’s a bit painful every time a song finishes having to duck the piercingly loud screams and whistles and someone thumping on the microphone. “Welcome all to Alex Neilson and Harem Scarem,” announces Will at the start, after deafening applause. Harem Scarem, not to be confused with a Canadian rock band of the same name, are a five member Scottish folk band, playing things like box melodica, flute, whistle, banjo and fiddle. These instruments also add crisp reverbance to the recording. That said however, I’m not a big fan of Oldham’s live recordings. His last double live LP, Summer In The Southeast did nothing for me at all. Oldham often changes his vocal arrangements to something faux-dramatic, whoopy and quirky, although in the absence of loud electric guitars as per that previous live album, at least he’s not shouting atonally just to be heard. You can hear every nuance of his voice, and the four women in Harem Scarem provide an ultra-sweet trancey kind of vocal support. Well worth seeking out a copy of this if you’re a Bonnie fan.

is it the sea labelMinor Place… this opens with a whining fiddle but apart from the basic melody, the song sounds quite different to its original incarnation on I See A Darkness. That’s hardly surprising, obviously, but I loved that version, so it’s hard to fully dig this harsher sound arrangement. Oldham’s voice has a piercing serrated quality to it on these recordings, again, a product of high quality recording equipment. The drums are pristinely captured, acoustic guitar loud in the middle. Oldham sings the song with different rhythmic thrust to the original too, which keeps you guessing, but I guess it’s his song, he can do what he likes with it. I’m not really down on it that much but something about the lyrical content and this style of performance don’t really match up in my opinion. A minor place ought to be just that, a minor place, not this arbitrary bluster. However, the lyrics do have nuances that suggest annoyance, particularly the lines, “Thank you man, if for the thought, that all my loving can be bought / Was wisely in your gullet caught / Before my loyalty was sought.” Still, the beauty of this song shines through. “Yes a clear commanding tone.” Indeed. The melody finishes on some truly beautiful fiddle. Then we get the dang audience blasting at three times the volume, ugh.

Love Comes To Me… hearing this, the opening track from 2006’s The Letting Go live with Harem Scarem on vocal support is really nice. Again, prominent fiddle, loud razor-edged Oldham vocal and a drum sound that sounds like the drummer’s right there in your living room. I think we have banjo in here and lots of warbly flute, giving this an outdoorsy Scottish vibe. Oldham appears to have changed some of the lyrics here. Love now comes when “you’re out of rings and flowers and soap,” or “when the fever hits your forehead and trusive mice chew up your bed and you call on God, but God is dead,” then, again, love comes to you. Love comes to the Bonnie narrator pretty much most of the time, though it’s not clear whether this love includes both the carnal and emotional kind. Nice.

Bed Is For Sleeping… originally from Superwolf, it opens with moodily sustained fiddle lines, and other twinkly tones, with female backing vocal, although the melody is not immediately connectable to the original. It swoons and sways, Oldham’s vocal is lighter and warmer this time. Those backing singers remind me of Emily Haines’s treated vocal on “Anthem For A Seventeen Year Old Girl” from the Broken Social Scene record. They’re very sweet and intimate. This song suits the clarity and the quiet dirge that sweeps it all together, until we get that oppressively loud applause at the end. “Bed Is For Sleeping,” taken away from the Superwolf context is harder to pin down. Looking again at the lyrics (printed on the gatefold sleeve) it seems more genuinely heartbreaking than the satirical sense I gleaned from the Superwolf version where it seemed to form an integral part of the concept. Here, Oldham sings about making love and sleeping together, but within the course of one verse it all changes; suddenly she’s leaving him and he’s “left on the walkway to swallow my grieving.” This sentiment came across as ironic in the original but here, you almost feel sorry for him. Dig this rhyme: “Sleep is for bedding / I will dream with you the night of our wedding.” Those female vocals are really growing on me. She sounds like a voice in the wind.

Arise Therefore… “The next song is called Arise Therefore and it’s about not counting your gospels before they’re hatched,” says Oldham, announcing the title track from his 1996 album, Arise Therefore. “Judas knows what we’re talking about.” This is useful, because looking at the lyrics, again I still can’t fathom much clear meaning. He seems vaguely set back by people who weigh him down; a lot of mistakes are made, some by fools, some by people intending you ill will, and you have to steer a course around them. Still, it’s good to hear this song in such a different context with its jiggly little guitar strum, a crafty percussion part, panting fiddle, and a vocal part that sounds a million miles removed from the original. It gets pretty loud once all instruments joins the mix, speeding up, bringing excitement, before pulling back for a dynamic shift in tone. It’s not easy to catch many of the words, Oldham sort of splashing his voice in eccentric jarring fits and starts throughout the song. This might well be my favourite song on the album.

Wolf Among Wolves… starts quietly, a long whining fiddle line, tappity drums, and another vocal melody that warps the original along rhythmic and dynamic lines. “O why can’t I be loooooved as what I am / A wolf among wolves / And not as a man among men.” It was easily my favourite song from Master And Everyone but on the first few listens, I didn’t find this version all that captivating. I’m not sure why, but I rarely hear the same depth of feeling in Oldham’s voice when he sings live. This is partly a result of him making small changes to the melodies creating a theatrical feel which somehow drains the songs of their interior emotion. That’s probably not true, but the thought came to me, so I’ll put it down. I do love the backing singers on this song—they’re quite eerie and effective. Much of the music dies away, before we get falsetto tones evoking the lonesome wolf in the throat of an Oldham perched up on a rock in the highlands. Other live versions appear on Summer In The Southeast, 2005 and Funtown Comedown, 2009.

is it the sea labelAin’t You Wealthy? Ain’t You Wise?… is also from Master And Everyone, some odd kind of breakup song, in which the narrator is leaving, somewhat reluctantly; “So it’s time I said goodbye / Hold onto me while I cry.” The moon watches him leave “bound in blankets and blonde hair,” while he gently inquires, though with hints of irony, “ain’t you wealthy, ain’t you wise, ain’t you made to give to me?” Whichever member of Harem Scarem has that airy, sheeny girlish voice, she’s really making her presence felt, which once again is probably a product of the precious approach to recording. The music here is soft acoustic guitar, a few lightly padded bass drum beats, and a rich tinkly slow soft harmony between Oldham and said vocal support. This is a weird criticism, but it’s a bit like watching film that’s been shot at 48 frames per second. The sound is almost too good—it leaves a slightly harsh edge in everything and leaves a kind of unpleasant pressure on your ears. That’s hard to explain. Like I fully admire it, but I can’t feel myself getting excited about it. It might even detract from the songs.

Cursed Sleep… is from The Letting Go. It was released as a 12” single from that album too. It’s a slightly creepy song in which the narrator sings of a dream in which his love is being held against his will. His femme fatale casts a spell which means he can never sleep or close his eyes again, a spell which prevents him from ever despising her. Freaky stuff. The song whines in on long drones, airy vocals, almost menacing, but then the song begins proper, the electric guitar, the drums, rising and falling with that mysterious vibe this song gives off. “I slept sweetly unpretending / That the night was always ending / And she breathed lightly right next to me / And I dreamed of her inside of me.” Liking this a lot. Deep bass adds a threatening quality, builds, vocal support joins when the lyrics turn dark. The group arrangements and dynamic are good, well-rehearsed. Here comes the fiddle in high dramatic tones. Quite a stormy kind of song, and when we get to the climactic chorus, the multi-vocal support is tremendous, hair-raising. Probably the longest song here. The crowd loved it.

Molly Bawn… is a Scottish traditional arranged by Alex Neilson for this live recording. The tale brings to mind Bob Dylan’s fondness for these kinds of ballads on his World Gone Wrong and Good As I Been To You albums, as well as those he covered or ‘borrowed from’ in his early days. In the story, Molly Bawn, wearing a white apron, goes to visit her uncle. It rains, she shelters under a tree, her groom comes along, thinks he sees a swan and shoots her, naturally enough. He’s thinking of leaving the country to avoid the trial, but Molly appears as a ghost and forgives him. As it turns out, all the other girls around are pleased to see the end of Molly because she was too fair a damsel; “Her beauty would outshine them like a mountain of snow.” The music opens with low rumbly percussion, a banjo, then we get crisp Oldham vocals, some feminine “oohs” and splashy loud instrumental hodgepodge between verses, that freaky folk sound. “Do not leave your country / Before the trial comes / They will not hang you / For the killing of a swan.” When Molly enters as a ghost, one of the Harem Scaremers takes up her part. When all musicians are thrashing away, it sounds very Scottish, aye, I’m half-expecting to hear a bagpipe join the fray. Long song.

is it the sea labelBirch Ballad… is a non-album track written by Oldham and Matt Sweeney, heard on record for the first time here. The heavy depth and warmth of the drums and acoustic guitar at the opening is astounding. This track is placed after “Molly Bawn” probably because there’s something thematically similar between the two tracks. The narrator, a woman, sets out along a road to meet her lover, then undresses “in the cold and falling snow,” before climbing through his window and making love. However, the apple of her hollow eye, the object of her affections that is, must have a notorious reputation because her parents have disowned her, and for some reason, he hates himself: “The hatred that you feel for you is equaled only by / The love’s that’s curled here rising in the hollow of my eye.” In any case, she’s here to “be” his life, his wife, and presumably to save him from himself. A lover’s suicide? Do they hang themselves from a birch tree? That’s the sense I get from the lyrical allusions. In terms of song arrangement/dynamics, it all seems even-keeled with a lovely fiddle solo in the middle and whatever else is in there, but apart from the nice recording, the song doesn’t strike me as anything special. Oldham wails a little but he sounds like he’s reaching for more than’s actually there and I don’t really buy it.

New Partner… is from Viva Last Blues, 1995 and appears in different forms on both Sings Greatest Palace Music and the “Strange Form Of Life” twelve inch single. “New Partner” which I take to be a kind of murder ballad, suggests that we’ve embarked on a series of lover’s death songs in the concert’s second half. Here the Oldham-narrator murders one lover in order to “go riding” with his new partner. Unfortunately the guilt consumes him making it difficult to enjoy his new life. The song opens with a beautiful fiddle part, tinkly acoustic guitar, then the familiar tune unwinds, slowly increasing in volume to its wonderful climax. Loved this version. I might have to renege on some of my earlier complaints about the sound and arrangements. It might sound even better if I dared crank the thing at top volume.

Is It The Sea?… was written by Inge Thompson, a member of Harem Scarem. The narration seems to be from an old sea-hand’s point of view. He’s spent most of his life out on the sea. He’s a drinker, morning has come, the bar is closing, but he’s not sure which he dreads more—the sea or life as a landlubbering family man. In any case, he’s got through a lot of years and now he’s a proud grandfather who no longer thinks of the sea. Oldham sings it, while someone plays long droney lines on … something organ-like. We get tinkle sounds, a very lonely mournful aesthetic. Oldham’s vocal is suitably harrowed and frail, reaching for that chalky croaky edge of his timbre. Sweet voiced harmony-girl provides lurching woohs and waahs in the break. “So fifteen years roll by, I’m still aboard / I crave the chaos of my family / And all I think of is a world ashore / Is it life I abhor? Or is it the sea?” sings Oldham’s old seadog. It’s not the most melodic number, but it has a quiet reflective power. More lonely “oooooh-aaaahhh” see-sawing at the end.

is it the sea labelMy Home Is The Sea… is the opening song from Superwolf. Let’s keep on with the themes of sea and death shall we? “I have often said / I would like to be dead / In shark’s mouth.” This evolves into a song about love and lust and subservient passion, freedom, and returning to find home in the sea. The song opens with moaning fiddle lines, and the pace is noticeably slower and more somber than the original. The tune is flattened though, Oldham trading the subtle melody for a more strenuous strain in his voice. It all sounds good, but I’m fussy, very fussy. I love the original version, but this is a good example of Oldham making unnecessary changes, as if the song could benefit from a new arrangement, which is just wrong. “I am under your spell,” repeat the backing singers over and over, which becomes quietly creepy. Even the line, “I know nothing and I’m overjoyed,” sounds stripped of its tune here, then Oldham starts shouting again. No, this is bland and pointless. Oldham announces his thankyous to the band. Lots and lots more cheering, whooping and clapping.

Master And Everyone… is from the album of the same name. Once again, the sea enters: “You tell me there are other fish in the sea.” Otherwise the narrator of this song seems to be struggling to break free of a fraught relationship. He pouts and defies her: “I am now free / Master and everyone / Servant of all and servant to none,” then later, and you’ve gotta love these lines, “I’m fickle and I brag about it / Neither will I cry for you / Like a bird freed from it’s cage / All night and all day I’ll play and sing,” which is pretty much what Oldham does. Here we’ve got a very quiet sound, a more pensive version than the original, and again, the melody seems lost to me. When the girls add their voices it all starting to sound a bit samey. I like it on the more melodic tracks, but here it just seems pointless, dressing up the otherwise uninteresting arrangement with frills. This also appears on Summer In The Southeast, 2005. Poor way to end … but … it’s not over yet…

The following two songs are ‘hidden’ tracks – you have to physically lift and replace the needle to play them.

I See A Darkness… is from the album of the same name and also appears in jovially disguised form on the six song EP Will Oldham on Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy aka Now Here’s My Plan. This usually quite moving song is about a depressed bloke who relies on his friend to help him through the darkness. He expresses hope towards the end of the song, although that hope is expressed in negative terms, hoping, perhaps ironically, that he’ll be able to stop his whoring and find inner peace. Oldham sings a line with one of the Harem Scarem singers answering him on those first two lines, a very nice touch. Piano, violin, spartan jazzy drumming create texture. You can feel the song building subtly, beautifully towards the chorus, and when it comes Oldham melts his way in with vocal support, although yet again, the subtleties of the original melody are flattened, lost. Pity, because it could have been glorious; they’re on the brink of something special here, but it’s a lost opportunity. Instead we get increased volume substituting for the truth of the tender emotions that the song normally brings to your ears. Disappointing.

Love In The Hot Afternoon… is an Oldham/Sweeney song first released as an mp3-single through the Adult Swim Singles Program, and can still be downloaded there for free. The narrator seems to be celebrating a “lady” he’s picked up from “bourbon street,” got high with her in the park then came back to a room where they made love in the hot afternoon. At first she was a mystery to him, but now he’s decided, after having made love and watching a street vendor from his window that she’s no longer a mystery (a prostitute?) but now “just a girl,” and himself “just a guy in the mood.” Spent narrator, the magic is lost. I do love the vocal arrangements here, Oldham singing the main lines, the Harem singers offering replies in their magical trippy tones. The arrangements are quite zestful, rises and falls, a slow-quick series of minor waves, swells, crescendos and diminuendos. Sounds wonderful. Not sure if I’m such a fan of this song though. Oldham reaches a ridiculous falsetto on the last line, “Yes for love in the hot afternoon.” Yet more needlessly voluminous microphone thump, hoots and hollers, whistles and applause. Sigh.

is it the sea backIt’s wonderful that the BBC have made efforts to capture every nuance of the concert but a real pity they were so eager to include such loud audience noise. It really is off-putting. It’s a nice LP, more one to admire perhaps than to really fall in love with. The following year, 2009, would see yet another live Bonnie album, Funtown Comedown.

Gatefold inner sleeve

Gatefold inner sleeve

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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