Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Chijimi 10”, 2009

chijimi frontIt’s in Will Oldham On Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy that Oldham says this Chijimi record is one of his favourites because of the simplicity of the recording process. Just himself, Emmett Kelly and Cheyenne Mize in a room in his house. There’s no doubt it’s special. He cuts loose on his singing and performs some brilliant vocals on the first tracks on each side. Cheyenne Mize plays fiddle and sings; Emmett Kelly plays fiddle, guitar and sings too. From what I can gather, this four-track EP was first issued as a freebie with digital download copies of Beware but Drag City later made it available as a separate item. It was also being sold as a tour-only release in 2009. “Chijimi” is a kind of Korean pancake which seems quite unrelated to the theme of these four songs, which might be best summed up by the words stamped on the plain white LP sleeve: “true awareness of being alive / instantly turns into gratitude / when we have forgotten / to be grateful or lost touch / with the spirit of gratitude / sadly we have fallen asleep / in the very midst of life / awaken us / and make us truly / grateful to Thee / in every act / and aspiration / of our lives.” Who is “Thee?” one wonders. The register and tone of the language used here seems like a cross between a Hallmark greeting card and a Christian Bible. In any case, there’s a mix of elation, celebration, fear and deliverance in these four songs.

chijimi labelHow About Thank You… and so here we have a song with Oldham’s persona expressing his heartfelt gratitude to “god,” “earth” and “you” for all he’s been given, fed and loved. In return he’ll “share with god the yield of my actions,” go wandering and love everyone back. Something’s odd here though. He talks about knowing he deserves this “sweet life of dreams.” One wonders whether the life he sings of in the first two verses are therefore unattainable goals. Nevertheless the final verse after the chorus goes, “I have music here in my body / I have choice, I have freedom to choose,” which again renders this attitude of gratitude a drop drippy. Why am I being so cynical? He sings this beautifully—you can’t deny the sense of sincerity in his voice. At song-end, Oldham bows humble: “Oh I know that I don’t know a thing.” In some ways this undermines everything else in the song, but of course, knowing that you know nothing is the greatest knowledge of all. Mize hums at the opening, we hear some banjo (?) and a simple though gorgeous vocal with minimal backing. A single fiddle line entwines with Mize’s voice. The chorus is deliriously pretty, two voices and the fiddle. Oldham’s voice is truly in its prime on this recording. And the tune beautifully blends this reverence with the tragedy of the human condition. Magic.

Hey Little… and here’s another neo-sappy song bordering on sentimental, yet, it contains a brilliant quirky line. It’s sung to a son, “little one,” ostensibly celebrating the ‘miracle’ of life from the point of view of a father, or maybe he’s taking the role of ‘god’ from the previous song. But lines like, “Hey little one, it’s more my fault than yours / The life and breath that flows through you / It was not your choice.” The word ‘fault’ suggests that life is more of a curse than a blessing and that the progenitor should take the blame, ha. And this line sounds wary: “You little thing, you’re bigger all the time / It won’t be very long before your shadow crushes mine.” He fears the world is closing in, and soon his son will “be beyond me, as sadly, on your own.” The song seems to express the vulnerability of being a parent. The melody here is more jaunty, a barely heard drumstick beat, a gossamer guitar, with Mize and Oldham’s voice melting together on certain lines, and those sweet fiddle whines. The gentleness, the picture of a father cradling his baby son in his arms, is carried on the soft, dulcet tones. Almost a lullaby. Olham hums, Mize doo-doos. Nice but not as amazing as the first song.

chijimi labelChampion… the first few words are not clearly audible, unfortunate, because it makes it difficult to know what the narrator is a champion of, but I thought I heard the words “cutting heads” in there. This character makes “women smile” and “men scream.” He enters your heart when you dream, but alas, everyone closes their doors on him when he walks the streets, until eventually he finds one door left open, a sign from his good friend god, again. Seeing “dark eyes aglow at the end of a hall,” here he finds the nectar he’s been looking for. There’s fluttery drums at the start, a winding fiddle line, and Oldham in harrowed ghostly mode, his voice riding a Klezmer edge in his throat, as if he’s trying to compete with Mize’s fiddle lines. It’s autumn-leaf brittle, recorded with a touch of distance, an open dark room. Towards the end, Mize’s wailing, Oldham’s intoning, “I am the champion,” drawing out his “I’ into several notes, is perk-you-up stuff. There’s a weird cultish-religo quality to this too.

Face Him… and in some ways this song seems to continue the previous one. “It’s a shrouded figure in front of me,” as though that’s what’s down the end of the hall. Light guitar part figures from Kelly keep pace, while Oldham sings bleak. Who is this mysterious figure? He doesn’t say, though again, the language that follows has a strong religious taint. It reminds me of the last song on Lie Down In The Light, “I’ll Be Glad,” where Oldham sang of following someone called “lord.” Here he sings, “I’ve been following for days, many ways, and when he turns and smiles … the light inside is shone and the brightest side is shown, and I face him now.” Repeat these last four words until the end of the song. So he seems to have had some kind of epiphany or near death experience. I hesitate to say “religious” because I don’t buy it and there’s no explicit suggestion that this should be so. Perhaps the shrouded figure is just an intruder hiding under a table cloth, and Oldham is singing about confronting the dude rather than shooting him. I jest, but I also make a point about how easy it is to read too much between the lines if we’re not careful. The music here is almost as diaphanous as Oldham’s falsetto mirrored by faint vocal notes from Mize. He reaches for the highest delicate notes on his voice at the end. You almost sense that he’s about to cry. Seriously. It’s scary and quite moving.

chijimi backSo that was a lovely little record. I’m not much into fact checking and liner notes, but it might have been Oldham’s first collaboration with Cheyenne Mize with whom he would release another 10″ EP called Among The Gold also in 2009.

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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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