Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Hummingbird 10”, 2012

hummingbird frontThis 10” was put out as an exclusive Record Store day release in 2012, and come to think of it, represents the first BPB release I bought after this project (to review every piece of Oldham vinyl) was started, which is to say, this project is nearly two years old now. Anyway it’s a nice heavy slab of vinyl with a nice sleeve, and at time of writing is readily available on Discogs. All three songs here are covers in varying degrees of quality. The main attraction takes up all of side one, and it seems to go for a good 7 minutes, but there’s something a little amiss. For me, the first country number on side two works best.

hummingbird labelHummingbird… was written by Leon Russell, an American musician and songwriter born in 1942, who has recorded as a session musician, sideman, and maintained a solo career in music. In this song, Leon’s persona compares his lover to a hummingbird because she “comes so sweet and softly.” He’s madly in love and he’s thrilled that “hummingbirds don’t fly away.” One wonders whether Russell was aware that the hummingbird, in certain South American folklores, is the god of war, and emblematic for their sharp weapon-like beaks. Still, it sounds cool, to compare your lover to a hummingbird, though it’s never quite made clear in the lyric what specific features of the hummingbird give rise to Russell’s metaphor, apart from some mad idea that “hummingbirds don’t fly away,” when it’s more likely that they do. This is ironic given that Oldham once penned a song called “One With The Birds” in which he lamented his inability to lie about his affairs. So I guess this is a love song, in which the narrator, who “thought my life had ended” suddenly discovers “it’s just begun” now that he has this hummingbird who has given him “understanding.” The song ends with him singing “Don’t fly away, ooh, don’t fly away,” but it’s hard to tell if that’s a plea or an order. The song opens with jazzy sounds, humming, piano, handclaps, footstomps, before the funky offbeat organ line starts up, and Oldham’s voice, sharp, high, clear, enters. Do they go together? I’m not so sure. I’ve not been digging this EP as much as I wanted to, and I think it’s because Oldham’s voice doesn’t seem as well suited to the funky jazz vibe. It’s like – the music and voice sound separate in some way, as though you’ve got the music over there and Oldham over here, and they’re placed one over the other without ever fully integrating. We’ve got several female backing singers. When we hit the chorus, it all sounds like it takes flight, and Oldham seems to extemporize his phrasal timing. The beat stops, and we get a dreamy piano and vocal section in the middle with Oldham intoning the lines, “Don’t fly away.” The music’s great, pristine, yet the song has always sounded a little strained to my ears, and regardless of how many times I play it, it never seems to sink its hooks into me. This dreamy section is good, warbling keyboards, airy female backing vocals, snare drum, twinkly effects and it makes a marked contrast to the upbeat vibe of the first part of the song, but it’s almost like two different songs.

hummingbird labelTribulations… was written by Estil C. Ball, an American fingerstyle guitarist, singer, and songwriter from southwestern Virginia, born 1913, died 1978. “Tribulations” is a redemption song, sung from the perspective of one who believes that when the wrath of angels “pour upon us,” and “when the fire comes down from heaven,” he’ll “be carried home by Jesus.” It’s a Revelations song, referencing a “beast with horns … one with seven, one with ten,” and a “mark … upon your forehead.” Blood will fill the sea and men will cry and “pray to die.” Fire and brimstone stuff that all seems a little medieval in 2012. And anyway, when has there not been a time when “trials, troubles, tribulations” are upon us. As I write we have Syria, Egypt, America, drones, NSAs, the Ukraine, mother-in-laws and the usual fascist dictatorships murdering members of their extended families out of fear of usurpation. So, a song for all time then. The song begins, doomily, with “Trials, troubles, tribulations / Such has never been before / When the angels pour upon us / Their vows of wrath forever more,” and basically, in typical Bible-belt evangelist-style, if you don’t stick with Jesus, you’ll die with the mark “upon your forehead.”  So, “away we go,” says Oldham, before strumming away at his acoustic guitar, with Emmet Kelly singing in unison, and the return to the country sound is much appreciated after the not-quite-working-to-advantage feel of the A-side. The melody is nice, the chorusing voices great, and a nice loud clear ring from the guitar. This is a baptismal down-by-the-bayou kind of music.

Because Of Your Eyes… is a solo version of this song which appeared as a B-side on the “Haggard Harper Bonnie” 7 inch single. The song’s narrator is in love, and it’s all “because of your eyes,” which is a fair enough thing to lay someone’s charm on. I know I’ve fallen for someone because of her eyes on more than one occasion. I’ve even fallen for someone because of her name. The song sounds live, a tinny sound quality with hiss, Oldham in his bathroom rehearsing the song as if only for the second time, figuring out how he wants to sing it, experimental, a harsh almost ugly falsetto, demo stuff. Not terribly interesting and not easy on the ears. Then we get a strange keyboard mid-section, just electric piano-like notes, murky, hissy, plunked badly. Hacked-at guitar and voice comes back in and its in-the-bathroom quality gets louder and cheaper and nastier. Think Dylan’s awful flunked performance of “Like A Rolling Stone” on Self-Portrait, then double the horror. Perhaps Oldham intended this as a warts’n’all version of himself or perhaps it was a joke. We may never know.

hummingbird backSo, this 10 incher isn’t the most worthy collectable in the Oldham catalogue, though I don’t mean to diss on it too much. The title track is good and probably the best thing here, but I think Oldham is more natural, more at home on the E.C. Ball song. Not long after this came out, we got the Now Here’s My Plan EP with six newly recorded songs from the man’s back catalogue.

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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