Will Oldham on Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Book & 2 x 10”, 2012

WO on BPB frontSo this EP, also known as Now Here’s My Plan (with a different cover) was released in two formats: one as part of a very limited edition (300) double 10” being sold together with hardcover copies of the book Will Oldham on Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, only available from Faber & Faber in London, which is what I’m reviewing here, having got a friend in London to buy it for me; and two, as the single disk Now Here’s My Plan for a vastly more affordable price via normal distribution channels. It harks back to the Sings Greatest Palace Hits idea from 2004, where Oldham takes his own songs and reworks them in a more friendly country pop manner, presumably for either comic or easy listening effect.

WO on BPB labelI Don’t Belong To Anyone… is from Beware, 2009. The original was a jaunty comical country-pop number all about the schism between remaining young and single when “it’s kind of easy to have some fun,” and growing up in order to “see what age brings.” The narrator seems to be wrestling with this problem of wanting to settle down with one true love, but at night he gets restless and doubtful. The original song already had a fairly jokey vibe to it, so how does this new version stack up? It’s slower, croonier with smoky backing “ooh” singers, mainstream country. Basically it’s the equivalent of the easy listening vibe wreaked upon the tracks on Sings Greatest Palace Music, which is disappointing, because the melody here, newly slowed, was buoyed by the original’s upbeat tempo. The lyrics still work, by which I mean, the change in the music doesn’t suddenly make the song sound ironic; rather it actually sounds more sincere. But truth be told, the standard honky tonk piano and electric guitars leave you craving the original.

Beast For Thee… is from Superwolf, 2005. A live version appears on Summer In The Southeast from 2005. It also happens to be my favourite Oldham song, at least the Superwolf version was, which means he can only destroy it. So the narrator says he’s willing to offer himself in total devotion to his lover, as a beast would, provided he’s treated kindly … “You could so easily take me in your arms and see / A donkey, a beast for thee.” He sees himself as one who toils for “muscle, tone and tears” in order to “overcome and flay all fears,” and the result is that they can have as much weekday sex as they like, especially on Wednesdays when he and his lover will fuse into “one bone and blood mass,” and “be in glory born.” Musically, it’s quite similar, though slightly more streamlined sounding. Yet again it has none of the original’s edgy beauty and despair. Angel Olsen sings support throughout whereas on the original Matt Sweeney’s falsetto rung far more prettily. This is jazzier with what sounds like vibes blending into the dreamy bass and keyboard and guitar arpeggio that runs through the whole song. But I’m not feeling that tingly hairs-on-the-neck vibe I usually get from this song. It’s the fuller warmer sound. The end where the voices usually rise in a hyper-realized near religious fervour, here it sounds like business as usual, Beast-by-numbers.

WO on BPB labelNo Gold Digger… is from Arise Therefore. It’s the tracks like this that provide the most interest given that it dates back to 1996, the days of sparse drum machine Palace sounds. The song seems to be a celebration of … um … the narrator’s satisfaction at having successfully slept with a girl, or a prostitute, without her stealing all his money from him. Something’s going on down in “the square,” horns are playing, but our lusty narrator prefers to stay in the room with his girl, whom he has just finished referring to as “the little dead girl, the little fish.” Presumably she’s spent, asleep. The weather turns stormy and so they just lie on the bed, while he comments that at least she’s “no gold digger,” but perhaps someone naïve and therefore trustworthy. The music here does actually attempt to recreate something of the original version’s minimalism with a cello rhythm and light electric guitar. The song never had much of a tune, and listening now, I still can’t recall much sense of melody. That’s okay. Olsen singing along, jazz-like here and there. Does it excite? Not really. It reminds me of Smog’s Knock Knock with that cello sound. Oldham’s voice floats and burrs through the song almost in his old unmelodious way, but the song kind of plods, and I don’t get a strong sense of integration between music and lyric. That said, it’s still the best here so far simply by virtue that it hasn’t taken the original down a notch.

WO on BPB labelAfter I Made Love To You… is from Ease Down The Road, 2001. This seems to be a song of pure joy about feeling good after making love. No “fucking” here thanks. This is sincere stuff. He’s enjoying post-coital bliss, watching her glisten, kissing her lips, embracing, and part of this joy comes from an apparent lack of guilt, although his use of the phrase “doing something filthy in a rented room tonight” still suggests there’s some residual self-loathing going on, perhaps. In any case, this is a song about living in the present moment and the way such a philosophy enables you to whitewash out all guilt and fear which are always associated with the past or the future. Nice. He says he’ll “think of you always, wherever.” How sweet. I love the opening of this, jazzy vibes, a distant chorus of “yeah yeah” and a slow sultry beat. When Oldham starts singing, with a much slower pace and relaxed feel than the original, he sounds torched. He stretches vowels in sighing tones that match the mood of the song nicely, and manages to sound true blue. The song builds and gets noisier towards the climax which is also where my interest wanes; I dislike that faux-dramatic rise that strives so hard to create an emotion that doesn’t ring equally dramatic in the lyrics. Thumping beat. Fade out.

I See A Darkness… is from I See A Darkness, 1999. See also Summer In The Southeast (2005) and Is It The Sea 2008) for live versions. Here we get a complete reversal – genuine sad song turned into a thumping exuberant romp around a cemetery. Perhaps this is the greatest ‘sacrilegious’ revision of one of his own songs Oldham’s ever pulled off, given this is possibly the only Oldham song to ever escape the borders of Oldham’s indie/alt.rock universe, and even then, probably not. Johnny Cash covered it though, which Oldham discusses in the book that accompanies these records. The song imagines two mates, blokes in a pub having a drink say, and one asks the other “did you ever, ever notice / The kind of thoughts I got,” which is to say he sometimes suffers depression as per the song’s chorus, “Yes I see a darkness.” He hopes that they’ll be able to “give up our whoring” some day in order to find peace and smiles and some kind of everlasting wakefulness, or insight. The song is a plea of sorts, the narrator telling his buddy, “you can save me from this darkness.” Song still has a nice tune regardless of what he does with it. Perhaps he’s covering Cash’s version and not his own—how’s that for an idea? The chorus is positively chorus-like.  It’s all very well to do as Dylan does and mess with your own back catalogue, but when all you achieve is to strip the songs of their natural emotional balance, it’s hard to say if it’s all that wise. You alienate fans sure, cool, nice, but do you win any new ones? No, not at this stage of his career.

WO on BPB labelThree Questions… is from Master And Everyone, 2003, a song looking for some kind of unconditonal love, but the questions border somewhere in that liminal space between sincere—not too ridiculously unrequestable, and just annoying. Like would you wear this rock around your neck if I gave it to you? And if the world ended and all you had left was some of this good old al-homdillillilie, would you share it with me? And if everyone else who knew me said I was an asshole, would you still stick by my side, say I’m innocent, even say I’m “the best”? So, a true love test of some kind, which sort of suggests he’s offering conditional love in return for unconditional. The music here is slow, just a couple of whining string instruments of some kind, weaving subtly together and apart, with Oldham improvising warbles and stresses on parts of the lyric as he sees fit. Angel Olsen sings the second verse which is a nice change, her strong clear cold voice feeling around the outer skin of the melody. It’s awfully slow, liquid electric guitar building into the twin violin or cello drift. Oldham and Olsen join forces for the final verse, as per their wonderful melding on Wolfroy Goes To TownDutchman, Broeder Dieleman covers this song on a 2015 7″ single with Oldham performing a Dieleman song on the flipside.

WO on BPB frontSo, I wasn’t really feeling the love here. Admittedly I just pulled it out and wrote about it after one spin, assuming the songs would be familiar enough to me that I could just pick up on them immediately, which I did for five out of six, but the whole thing seemed a bit passé to me, a bit streamlined, and passionless. Originally I was going to review the book that goes with the EP (pictures below) too, but there’s plenty of reviews of that on the web, and it’s been nearly two years since I read it from cover to cover in one session. Definitely worth a read I think, if you’re really into Oldham’s full catalogue.

The book & the alternative cover:

WO on BPB book inside

Number & seal of authenticity

Now Here's My Plan

Now Here’s My Plan

Book coverBook cover

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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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