Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy & The Phantom Family Halo, The Mindeater 10”, 2011

mindeater frontI’d like to begin this commentary with the statement that this is one of the best pieces of vinyl released in 2011 with Oldham’s name attached. I dig all four of these songs; while they’re hardly pop, they all have strong simple melodies, and there’s something Beatles-y about them though it’s hard to put my finger on where the sources of my recognition stem from. It seems the Phantom Family Halo consists of Dominic Cipolla who wrote these songs with Oldham’s voice in mind, and William Benton. Songs were recorded in a funeral home, the recording process very simple and natural, Cipolla has said. They’re sort of quiet, weird strummed things, with lots of atmosphere and a slightly spooked vibe, but a few spins in and the tunes descend from their halos so that our good earthly selves can enjoy.

mindeater labelThe Mindeater… there’s this, um, guitar tone sound, which will cause anyone versed in Beatles lore to immediately think George Harrison and think, meh, maybe not. But it’s quite hooky, though maybe that’s because it repeats, down three notes and back to the top over and over again, above a rawly strummed acoustic guitar. Oldham’s voice is processed, with a whispery damaged kind of tinny vibe though it’s a nice effect. So “The Mindeater” seems to be a song about how you can only stay angry or bitter at the world for so long. “It’s like a curse,” you see, and if you do (stay angry etc) then one day you’ll find you’ve gotten old and peace of mind will be “so very hard to find.” So, in the chorus, the narrator, as voiced by Oldham, wants “love to ease my mind,” and later “to eat my mind.” And apparently “the heart needs love to cure the mind.” Pretty straightforward self-help book kind of stuff, but hey, I guess people need to figure this out for themselves at some point. The second verse seems like filler, though I like these lines, “It’s a different kind of weather / It doesn’t stay forever / It comes and goes, it can leave you behind.” So the advice from the Phantom Family boys is don’t get left behind, I guess. Let love eat your mind instead. The overall feel of the song is not particularly spooky as one reviewer has noted, but yearning and pessimistic despite it’s attempt to cure itself. What I do like is the wondrous and warm organ coda tacked on the end, with some beautifully downer chords that sound similar to the track “Bright Red,” on Laurie Anderson’s album of the same name. Nice way to end a fairly catchy lo-fi vibed number.

Roki For Now… also sounds somehow vaguely Beatles-familiar, like, say, the Let It Be album. We get a slow chiming guitar pattern, that same lo-fi raw vibe, and the whispered vocal thing again. In fact it’s a little bit gimmicky after the first track, though this time Cipolla’s voice is louder in the mix so the two voices merge, and you can only just hear Oldham’s dryer edged voice hovering behind. The tune is great though, especially on the chorus, “You knew me when I was a younger man.” According to Cipolla in interview, the Roki in the title is Roky Erickson of the 13th Floor Elevators and the song relates something Roky and his wife Dana said to him. In fact this gets to the source of why this EP even exists—apparently Cipolla met Oldham at some party or reunion gig held for Erickson. The lyrics tell of a fellow chatting to a listener, saying that he’s happy to just sit and watch the world go by and doesn’t feel any urgency to jump up and participate, “I’d rather sit in this chair and stare at the world / I feel pretty fine.” He’s an older fellow now, recalling when he was a younger man, “when my mind wasn’t right,” and “when they couldn’t understand / They tried to come and take me away.” So now he’s tired, “I need some rest,” he’s just gonna sit in his chair and ignore the telephone if it rings. He tells his listener that when he was young his “eyes were wide, full of sin,” and that when you knocked at the door of a crazy man, he opened it up “and you came in.” There’s only a hint of regret in these lines, and it’s hard to tell if he really believes he was crazy, or not. Has the force of society normalized him now? Is he a broken man? He seems at peace in any case, hence “Roki for now.” The song’s not too long, but this track is also coda-ed with organ tones, though much more atmospheric and quieter this time, while a faint train-like rhythm can be heard chugging along slowly behind, like a field recording, and one imagines old Roki sitting in his chair, quietly, calmly, out of his mind, as the industrial-commercial world grinds its gears in the background, sadly. 

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I Wonder If I Care As Much… is an Everly Brothers song, and for me, the stand out track here. Loud, brash drums, wildly feedbacking guitar, it’s exciting and a little trashy. Todd Brashear joins Oldham on vocals, and something about their combined voices end up sounding like a band I remember from a number of years ago, Oakley Hall. Who knows … perhaps this would be the spark that would fire Oldham and Dawn McCarthy to record their 2013 tribute to the Everly Brothers. Needless to say this version sounds nothing like the original, which had a clicker clack beat, tinny guitar and piercing youthful boy-boy harmonies. The lyrics have a teeny-bop feel as the narrator sobs himself to sleep over what I presume is lost love, or he’s been cheated on, as we learn that, “My pride is made to say forgive / And take the blame for what you did / It’s your mistake I’m thinking of / I wonder if I’m still in love.” So, assuming the narrator is male, she’s gone and bonked someone else, and now he cries himself to sleep, hopes his tears will “wash away / The memory of the life before,” and of course, as per the title, wonders “if I care as much as I did before.” If he’s as young as he sounds, I would say no you don’t; you got cock-blocked ya schmuck. So the song’s got an easy long-note-and-release kind of melody, with Cipolla on drums and William Benton shredding his guitar with a full-on assault and it sounds great! After a couple of minutes, the rhythm changes on the chorus to something vaguely military, and the guitar echoes old-school style, distorted, fancy fretwork, with powerful drumming. This instrumental section fills up most of the song, having diverted majorly from its source material at this point. Tis the longest song here clocking in at eight minutes. It rocks, gets ever more distorted and groany, guitars fading to just solid rhythm section taking the song out in the last minute.

Suddenly The Darkness… fades in with its chorus. This is another self-help song in a similar manner to “The Mindeater,” but a bit of a throw-away pop ditty that doesn’t offer much in philosophical insight and seems about as far from an Oldham lyric as you can possibly get, except that it’s about the “darkness,” a topic Oldham’s sung in far more complex ways than this. So the narrator here realizes that if you dwell in sadness then the darkness will come and envelop you, and what you have to do see, is step into the light, man. Got that? Ya gotta step out of the shadows. Unfortunately for the narrator of this song, he’s psychologically inclined to keep ending up back in the darkness no matter how hard he tries. The overly catchy chorus gets a bit repetitive: “Suddenly the darkness is coming for you.” We’ve got a jauntily strummed acoustic guitar with a little diddly skeddadle and jumpity bump in the chorus, with a tambourine on every second beat. Once again, Oldham sounds like he’s singing through a rolled up magazine, a little trebly effect, while Cipolla offers some singing from the other side of the room. Nice enough.

mindeater backYeah, I think based on this, I’d like to hear more of the Phantom Family Halo but after playing this EP a lot and then maybe overplaying it, I started to find it all a bit indie trite and fey in the end. An entertaining distraction but hardly about to light anyone’s fire. The lyrics are partly to blame for that—of the you-hear-them-once-and-you’ve-got-it variety. The whole ‘recorded in a morgue’ thing doesn’t really add anything to the songs, but there is a nice peace and calm to most of it, except for the rock out track on side two.

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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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