Cheyenne Mize and Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Among The Gold, 2009

among the gold frontThis is an interesting project. These songs are old, like very old, dating back as far as 1873. The most ‘recent’ one is from 1915. There’s a neat narrative arc running through these songs with the first five mentioning “dreaming” and “dreams” of love. The last is the most popular, well-known and melodic. Mize plays all the instruments—guitar, autoharp and violin, as well as sings. Oldham only contributes voice, so I guess this is more of Mize’s project than Oldham’s. They play the songs fairly straight, without too many frills. It’s not as emotionally affecting as their Chijimi EP, nor as beautifully recorded—they sound like they’re too close to the microphone, the bass notes are a touch boomy. On the other hand, if the cheap home-recorded sound was the aesthetic they were after, then they succeeded. This would be fine but there are moments where the recording levels are too loud for the microphone so that when both voices come together, you get distortion. Some folks think this EP is pure gold, but I couldn’t find myself getting too excited by it. From a cultural perspective it’s interesting to consider the pace of these songs—they’re slow and kind of dreary—I was going to say ‘painfully’ slow, but that would only illustrate my point—our lives are dictated by such speed in the 21st century that it requires a real force of will to slow down and listen properly to these songs, written by people with too much time on their hands. That said, I still couldn’t find it within myself to muster up the patience to give this record more than a few spins before moving on. The past is called the past for a reason. Let’s get it over and done with then…

among the gold labelOnly A Dream… written by Harry Lincoln and George Craff in 1909. The narrator of this song who I shall presume to be male describes a dream he had last night in which he was madly in love with the “you” he addresses. He roams through woodlands, admires the bright stars and sees the world through fresh eyes, but alas, it’s all “only a dream.” It would seem like a cliché if the lyrics weren’t over a century old. When the stars dim, he wakes and the realization dawns: you’re not here dammit, I wish I’d never woken up. Musically, there’s a simple rhythm played on guitar, Mize singing the first verse in what seems like a fairly old-timery familiar tune. Oldham joins in dulcet tones for the chorus, “Only a dream, dear heart, only a dream / Would that I ne’er awoke / Things the same would see.” A cushion-soft sound, then Oldham takes up the next two verses, a light hymnal voice. The effect is … dreamy, swoony, idle, sleepy, and before you know it, you’re almost lulled into liking it.

Love’s Old Sweet Song… written by S.L. Molly and Graham Bingham sometime before 1884 according to Hyperion. The lyrics seem to chronicle the origins of love, somewhere in “the dear dead days beyond recall / When on the world the mists began to fall.” And soon the song of love “softly … wove itself into our dream.” That’s because it comes at twilight when the heart is tired, sad and weary, and “even today we sing love’s song of yore / Deep in our hearts,” where it shall dwell forevermore. This song of love is associated with flickering shadows, low lights, and the gleam of firelight. Mize opens again, with a slight Irish lilt in her voice, a few gossamer strums on the autoharp, then, exactly like the first song, Oldham joins her for the chorus, which is louder this time, a little stronger of voice, more bird-like, a little out of time with each other. Oldham takes up the next two verses in high tremulous voice, slow and swoopy, a little sparrow of a man, singing about love. Mize joins, plucks a few notes and sweeps from her autoharp, shing shing and it’s over. Not as interesting a melody as the first song.

Beautiful Dreamer… is by Stephen C. Foster and dates to 1864. It’s not clear who or what the narrator of this song is, but I get the impression she’s a dreamer’s muse, inviting the dreamer to “wake unto me,” which means something like fall asleep and come into the dream world where “sounds of the rude world heard in the day … have all passed away,” as have “the cares of life’s busy throng.” This dream world is likened to the sea where “mermaids are chanting” and “streamlet vapors are born.” Essentially a song inviting you to enjoy your dreams so that the “clouds of sorrow” can depart. Mize and Oldham sing this one together, like a round, half a line out-of-sync with each other, strummed guitar, lone violin. The singing out of time with each other is a really nice touch, but we get a little of that distortion when the voices meet. The song’s over quickly without a strong melody. It’s about as far from say, Viva Last Blues‘s “Cat’s Blues” as you could possibly get.

among the gold labelKiss Me Again… is a song by Victor Herbert and Henry Blossom dating to 1915, in which the narrator invites his lover to “kiss me, kiss me again,” somewhere in the “sweet summer breeze,” beneath “whispering trees,” “stars shining softly above,” and “sleepy birds dreaming of love.” Once again, the narrator wants to escape and simply remain “safe in your arms, far from alarms.” How much of this sap can we take? More trees, more birds, more dreams of love. Mize sings prettily, folky, high, but when she gets to “kiss me, kiss me again,” it’s not exactly sultry. Oldham speak-sings the next verse, and it’s … laughably faux-tender. His “kiss me, kiss me again,” is pretty funny. It’s suitably archaic sounding. This one doesn’t hold my interest much.

Let Me Call You Sweetheart… by Leo Friedman and Beth Slater Whitson, from 1910. The dreaming never ends: Here the narrator announces from the off, “I am dreaming dear of you, day by day,” and he goes on for several drippy lines wanting to call her “sweetheart” and desperate for her to tell him “that you love me too,” through images of silvery moonlight gleams, sunny smiles and glowing love-lights. I quite like this one—it has a better melody, played on guitar. Both sing together in high desultory tones, Oldham whistles the lazy melody not quite in tune, Mize lah-de-das prettily. “Let me call you ‘sweetheart,’ I’m in love with you / Let me hear you whisper that you love me too.” They get quite passionate towards the end. High tones, pretty melody, bland lyrics.

Silver Threads Among The Gold… written by Hart Pease Danks and Eben Eugene Rexfo in 1873. Wiki says this song was extremely popular in the US back in its day and was the most frequently recorded song of the ‘acoustic recording era’ back in the early part of the 20th century. And fair to say it’s easily the most interesting song here because the singer is “growing old,” hence “silver threads among the gold.” Another love song, with the singer stating that his or her darling “will be always young and fair to me,” and when the partner’s hair is just as silver, “and your cheeks no longer bright,” then she/he’ll still see him/her as young. This is because, despite locks changing colour and cheeks hollowing out, Love with a capital L never grows old, but rather, like summer’s warmth buried in “winter’s frost and chill,” the warmth of love never fades away. Got that? Good. We’re back to the alternating verses thing, and they manage to make it sound like there are two narrators singing back and forth to each other. The melody is a simple thing, repetitive, but quietly affecting. Oldham’s voice is in slurred, personable, barely-sung mode. They start singing a line each, as they slowly merge together and that’s when the distortion thing starts to get annoying, ruining what is otherwise the best song on the disc.

among the gold backShlocky pop songs from a hundred years ago. Pop hasn’t changed much then, though these are more lullabies than pop songs. I doubt I’ll ever play this again. It’s not quite my keg of beer. For more of Oldham with Cheyenne Mize see also the wonderful Chijimi 10″ and the live album Funtown Comedown, both from 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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