2011 seems to have been the advent of the 10” single in Oldham’s world. They would appear with decreasing frequency from here on in: four in 2011, three in 2012 and one more in 2013. Perhaps the songs were getting longer, or maybe you get a better quality of sound on 10” at 45 rpm. “Island Brothers” was recorded with Oldham’s backing band from The Wonder Show Of The World, The Cairo Gang, though it’s a vastly different sound from that 2010 effort, the B-side especially, which sounds like crooner cabaret jazz, a first for Oldham, and it really works, there being certain styles that suit his voice and plenty that don’t. From memory, this 10” was issued as a charity single, proceeds going to Haiti following the catastrophic earthquake of 2010, hence the pictures on front and back of the sleeve. From the Dragcity website we get this: “the profits … going to facilitate and educate Haitian access to clean filtered water in these times of disaster and disease.”
Island Brothers… is ostensibly performed as a rallying cry of support, ergo, “And I rally, Sing! / Only when you’re strong,” goes the chorus line, which opens the song with three loud voices, male and female, like a trumpet cry. The line pops up twice more. And so it’s a song about using song as healing, a popular theme for Oldham who has said he sees music as a religion. So we get lines like, “My brothers gather round me, they see me when I’m down / … / Well, helpful or unhelpful / Their words come, flowing around,” and “Peace be all upon the ones buried together / No names and still recalled / As ones who died together.” That would be all very well and good, but, as I said above, ostensibly: things are never quite so simple in a Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy song. Once we get halfway through the song, the grammar and sense become a little mixed up, as is wont in an Oldham lyric: “And thunder is a love sound / And rain and cold are cool / Well some lose their houses / Others become a fool / But out of older mouths / Come insolence and drool.” Say what? Jazzy, riffing Will. Letting words come whatever way they spill? And what does it even mean to say “Sing, only when you’re strong / To others only all night long / And close your mouth and eyes, otherwise”? What kind of rallying cry is that? My feeling is that Oldham, not wanting to write some sentimental crap deliberately antagonises the lyrics to reflect the broken down-ness of a post earthquake zone. In other words, it’s a token slice of realism, a little touch of chaos, a recognition that a song by itself ain’t gonna rebuild a city, and this is further reflected in the music and structure of the song. The rhythm is jaunt-funky, with trilling piano, burning electric guitar, stop, and launch into the chorus: “Siiiiiing!” There’s a brief jazzy piano interlude, and we enter the second verse, stop, start, big punchy chorus, and softer slower long flowing lines, then the song goes all quiet, with a short trumpet solo, drums drop out, distant piano, an early seventies aesthetic; love the trumpet, we drift for a full minute or more, piano, and a slow gospel soul vibe brings the song back in softly for its denouement, like a sorrowful balm over those who’ve lost loved ones in the tragedy. And Oldham breaks into a high country falsetto for one last loud bashed-drums chorus, before a big dramatic breakdown finale.
New Wonder… continues this early seventies gospel soul sound, quiet guitar, then a very slow beat, with Oldham crooning late-night over female backing vocals; Oldham’s never sounded so black. The lyric uses a sort of four-words-forward three-words-back kind of approach to get at its theme and structure. In the first part, the narrator asks over the course of three lines, the question, “What shall we do about the fact that some things are so good that nothing can come after?” The answer, he suggests, is that we have to change, and any who can’t change will be left behind. It reminds me a little of Dylan’s “When The Ship Comes In.” Lots of piano, little tickly guitar parts, and that soft gospel harmonized vocal oozes back into the second part, where we get a kind of reversal: “In time I try to hide the fact that some things are so wrong that nothing can erase them, (not) even change.” But once again, “all who will not change will be left behind.” Like the A-side, “New Wonder” is a ‘broken’ song too, a devastated song, where the lyric seems to say one thing, but beneath that is a terrible state of affairs demonstrating that nothing is right without some equal and opposite force of wrongness. Does this make the title “New Wonder” ironic then? As in little wonder: new wonder, not!”
Despite reports elsewhere, these songs for the most part sound nothing like The Wonder Show Of The World nor Beware. I suppose Oldham had begun to embrace something of a soul-jazz-influenced sound on The Wonder Show Of The World but nothing that sounded quite as authentic as this. Does it work? Yes, it’s a style I’d love to hear Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy do a whole album in. The man knows what he’s about. The next 10″ to follow, released at around the same time as this, I vaguely recall, was a collaboration with Matt Sweeney, the “Must Be Blind/Life In Muscle” 10″.