Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Haggard Harper Bonnie 7”, 2011

haggard harper frontIn which Will Oldham asserts himself as country and folk crooning interpreter extraordinaire, adding two more folk or country covers to his collection of 7” releases—his John Martyn, his David Allen Coe, his John Prine, his Graham Nash, his Larry Jon Wilson and his Kevin Coyne. And so how does Oldham divvy up his two songs here as per a theme which you’ll find on most of his two-song releases? The A-side gives us a smooth sincere love song, a bringing-us-closer number, and the B-side finds the narrator running far away from a love that might be too obsessive.

haggard harper labelBecause Of Your Eyes… Merle Haggard’s version is a quiet song with a softly strummed acoustic guitar and an electric guitar adding texture and melody. It appeared on his 2003 album Like Never Before. The lyrics are a straightforward love song expressing joy for the fact that the loved one is unknowable, “always so different and never the same,” which keeps the relationship exciting and new. What’s the secret? As per the title—it’s “because of your eyes.” So this lady, “so sexy and wise,” makes the narrator “double in size” when she looks at him, and so, “we’ll always be lovers,” which is a bold proclamation, maybe even a bit creepy when you think about it. What if she wants to move on at some point? Will she have a choice in the matter? In any case I’m not much moved by the lyric or Haggard’s easy listening version; seems a bit sappy to me. Oldham’s version opens with pensive slow piano, then a very richly recorded country vibe with pedal steel, slow beat, and I have to say, it’s weird how Oldham often seems able to improve on the original. Am I biased? Probably, and yet he really does. I’m not a huge fan of this one, but it’s done well. Soft voiced tones, sultry stuff, scoring music, for when you’ve got her home and you still have some work to do. Anyway, the pedal steel wafts across the mix, and the slow beat and delicate guitar and Oldham’s warm soothing voice all add up to a little too much syrup for this listener. This song also appears as a solo version on the B-side of the “Hummingbird” 10 inch single.

haggard harper labelI’ll See You Again… by Roy Harper, originally appeared on Harper’s collection of tracks known as Valentine, released on Valentines Day in 1974. Someone by the name of Jonathan Wilson (who plays on this) was putting together a tribute album to Roy Harper called All You Need Is What You Have and this was supposed to be part of it but from what I can tell the LP was never released. Harper’s version is a nice folky guitar number, with a bittersweet lyric about having to leave a lover behind (that theme again, hence Oldham’s interest in the song), reminiscent of Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe,” sung in Harper’s British accent. Typical of much early 70s folk, it gets a bit syrupy towards the end with stirring strings. The lyric opens with a great line, “No good pretending girl / You were for spending the rest of your days round my neck.” So, he wants to move along, because “I’m not that strong … and my love isn’t something to wreck.” He sums up their potential as lifelong partners with these deeply cynical lines, “Having kids with one man / Milk his frustration / And get his submission / And weep and wear black when he’s gone.” Then something interesting – he sings about maybe seeing her again, “by accident” which is very reminiscent of the B-side of the There Is No God 10”, known as “God Is Love.” Anyway, he had to get on the road and leave to stop her from falling in love with him because all he was ever after was “good friends and good hunting,” but she wanted his “soul behind bars.” The wisdom at song end? “Well love isn’t jealous or bitchy and callous / She’s here for us all and she’s ours.” Love is imaged as female apparently, in a Roy Harper song. How does Oldham handle it? Vocally, it’s high and airy, soft and subtle. The music begins with a bed of harmonizing string instruments, a low single note groan and whine, slowly moving into chord changes, with the acoustic guitar and more variation in the melody. It’s not terribly folky any more, more, um, movie theme soundtrack music? Yes that’s it. The music here has a softly sensuously dramatic and atmospheric feel with keyboards and flugelhorn, clarinet, viola, violin and double bass. The ending is corny or hilarious. What is Oldham doing? He sends his voice soaring into a high overblown farflung style, something we’ve never quite heard from him before, and boy is it hard to take seriously. In the last verse, each word or phrase gets picked out delicately, and nasally processed through Oldham’s throat into soaring wind in the mountains. “I flew / What else could I do? / I needed to stop you from falling in love that way,” and then the “no way” starts up and gets ridiculous, while a female choir intones “no way” behind him. I mean, seagulls? Snow capped mountains? White tipped waves? The credits roll. Ugh.

haggard harper backIt’s Murphy’s Law isn’t it? Just as I’m busy spouting off about what a brilliant interpreter Oldham is (see the amazing Ask Forgiveness) he turns out a couple of meh moments, sell outs, turgid string drenched trash.

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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