Trembling Bells is the vehicle of main woman Lavinia Blackwall along with Alex Neilson, an old friend of Oldham’s, someone who he’d already collaborated with on his live album Is It The Sea? Trembling Bells are a multi-instrument folk rock band from Glasgow with about 15 members who play organ, piano, glockenspiel, electric, acoustic and lapsteel guitars, theremin, bass, double bass, trumpet, trombone, violin, viola, cello, saxophone, accordion and recorder; think Fairport Convention and The Incredible String Band whose original member Mike Heron wrote the B-side to this single and herein sings. The A-side with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy appears on the Trembling Bells album The Constant Pageant. The two artists would collaborate more fully in 2012 on The Duchess EP and The Marble Downs album.
New Year’s Eve’s The Loneliest Night Of The Year… given that Oldham lends his voice to so many other artists’ work, but is not always co-credited as album artist would suggest that he doesn’t just sing here but also had a hand in the songwriting. The lyrics on this song seem to match Oldham’s style, although the song follows a fairly straightforward narrative about a chap who’s been let go by his beau, (just like the narrator of “Ohio River Boat Song” 17 years earlier) and so winds up in a bar drinking his blues away: “I’ve been drinking since September and the time just kind of goes,” he pines, “Me alone with my last beer.” It just happens to be the 31st of December, “round midnight, I suppose,” hence the chorus line, “New Year’s Eve’s the loneliest night of the year.” He’s mournful, self-pitying and dramatic, as expressed in this great heft of a line in the second verse; “I wouldn’t change you for all the stolen Roman marble in the British museum,” hinting perhaps, that some other chap has whisked his sweetheart away, and now his heart’s as heavy as that weighty stolen stone. There’s no silver lining for this fellow who resigns himself to spending another year missing her, while his only New Year’s resolution will be to “stagger through this day.” Musically, we have a yuletide piano sound, a violin, bass; one imagines an old pub, a warm fireplace, holly, and other trappings of the season. When they get to the chorus, Lavinia Blackwall of Trembling Bells joins Oldham, the music all blusters up loudly, as the song’s narrator accepts that its winter, the days and nights are slow, and he hasn’t “smiled since summer.” There’s quite a beautiful secondary melody chiming in behind the chorus, the whole thing makes for an expressive blustery circus kind of folk-pop. Nice.
Feast Of Stephen…was originally recorded by Mike Heron with the Incredible String Band back on their 1971 album Smiling Men With Bad Reputations, but here he joins with Trembling Bells as his backing band. Saint Stephen, or Stephanos, was the first Christian martyr apparently, and this is celebrated with a feast on the day after Christmas. The events of the song occur on St. Stephen’s Day, in the evening, and the song’s narrator has thrown the feast for his guests, is well prepared, “the flame well fed with pine,” and a fiddler has come “from the low dales” to “give the tunes their flight.” The tune opens with a ding-donging piano melody, drums and bass soon join, and brass and violin, a noisy ringing kind of psychedelic pop sound. Heron sings in accent though his voice isn’t exactly pretty, a little ragged and flat. A trumpet starts blasting all through the song. Lyrically, something mysterious is going on. He mentions in the first line, a ‘her’ that he’s been waiting for, though he doesn’t know her name. And while the lady guests dance on, he slips from the house “to meet the night” out in the snow, and to “light my eyes to Venus green.” So who is this ‘she’ he’s trying to see? Perhaps the song is rooted in a tradition or folk tale I’m unaware of. In any case, he’s out in the snow, looking into the “midnight skies” where “she flies, she flies.” That’s it. Perhaps ‘she’ is Venus the planet or Venus the goddess. Perhaps she’s a long lost love. I don’t know. It sounds not unlike a great Neutral Milk Hotel song, with that circus brass, splashy drums, and the “fa la, fa-la-la” that gets repeated as the song slowly fades out. Good stuff.
I guess this is where the seed for a bunch more songs was planted, because in 2012 we would get four more collaborative tracks between Oldham and Trembling Bells on the Duchess EP and ten more on The Marble Downs LP. Likely many of us beyond the shores of Briton would never have heard of Trembling Bells without the Bonnie named attached, though their albums have been well received by the press. One more 7″ with Oldham’s voice came as part of the Graham Nash tribute album in 2010, “Simple Man.”