Bonnie Prince Billy, Barely Regal EP, 2014

barely regal coverAn eight song EP of covers, several of which were released in late 2013/early 2014 via iTunes, brings to mind the truly beautiful collection Ask Forgiveness from seven years earlier. This collection is almost as good. Almost I say, because while I think Oldham achieves something near miraculous turning these trashy songs into genuine artifacts, the source material and lyrical content is not quite as good or as interesting this time round. So Oldham and company (there’s a different musician accompanying him on every song here) have taken a cross section of popular hits from 2012 and shown us that what concerned the fake troubadours of American pop that year was love and healing.

barely regal labelThat’s My Kind Of Night… originally appears on American country artist Luke Bryan’s fourth album Crash My Party. To my ears the original is a horribly compressed godawful country pop number that could only be redeemed by our esteemed Bonnie Prince. The lyrics are pure middle American male gaze hokum – ergo phrases like “hop onto the seat of my big black jacked up truck,” “purdy girl by my side” and “scoot your little hot self over here / Girl hand me another beer, yeah!” Ten bucks that exclamation mark says this guy’s gonna end up raping her by the end of the night. I say American hokum, because there’s not another nation on earth that could do a song like this with such a straight face. Even Australia. That said, Oldham seems to take to the song with great glee and not a hint of pisstakery to be found anywhere. Despite my cynicism, I’ve fallen in love with it, mainly because the rollicking guitar rhythm heard on this versions sounds cool and is insanely infectious. The good old authentic country boy in this song thinks he’s got a trick up his sleeve that’ll get him into bed with this girl faster than “all them other boys” who only “wanna wind you up and take you downtown.” So what’s his game? He’s gonna take her out past the cornfields (corn, ha) to the “Flint river” where they’ll do some fishing, “catch us up a little catfish dinner” (catfish sounds suggestive) and then rhymes dinner with “winner” – i.e. “when I lay you down and love you right.” He suggests they go skinny dipping, and “ease on in” – more suggestive language. There’s something a bit rapey about the narrative arc here. Seems that cliché country rock is the white equivalent of corny R&B. Of course Luke Bryan didn’t actually write the original song, he’s just the fall guy, the stiff. Will Oldham, on the other hand, has earned the right to sing a song like this and not give a crap how rubbish the lyrics are. He actually manages to make it sound fun and meaningful. The music is awesome – a strong grungy heavy rhythm section. There’s a slight rawness and ragged edge to Oldham’s voice. The non-shiny production just goes to show how damn good the song is with a decent vocal. I can’t help loving it, and all my concerns about the crappy lyrics are completely undermined by Oldham’s quite sincere performance. Magic.

Better Than I Used To Be… is originally performed by Tim McGraw, another cliché mainstream American country artist who’s about to be shown how his song could be vastly improved if the dull trappings of cornball hick accent, pedal steel and barroom cabaret piano were removed and the song sung by someone who doesn’t sound like every other mainstream male country artist of the past 20 years. McGraw is yet another country stiff who doesn’t write his own songs. In fact, one of the songwriters of the Luke Bryan song, Ashley Gorley, is also credited for writing this turd. The central premise of “Better” is that the narrator-singer regrets having been an asshole for most of his life (as if that’s gonna change) and now he’s turning over a new leaf, viz: “I’m cleaning up my act little by little … I ain’t as good as I’m gonna get / But I’m better than I used to be.” Bollocks, you liar. Another southern-fried masculine doorknob. As if to mitigate the embarrassing self-sermonising, the singer admits that he’s still “got a few more dances with the devil” and “I’ve got a few old habits left” (yeah, porn addiction, rape fantasies etc) and this horrible line: “Aw, honey, I won’t lie / It’s gonna be an uphill climb.” Aw, honey. Oh god help us. Aw honey can you hear my pathetic plea for redemption. The only redeeming Tim McGraw is ever gonna get for inflicting this old bag of clichés on the youth of America is that someone covered the song and somehow achieved the impossible—he made it sound authentic. This is truly beautiful as performed by Oldham. It’s amazing how he can take such a shit of a song and treat it with compassion. Meanwhile, stooges like Luke Bryan and Tim McGraw get the spoils of the commercial machine, proving the music industry is a complete joke, a joke that Oldham lays to waste. In 20 years time no one will remember those two names above, whereas Will Oldham may end up in the rock & roll hall of fame, except he won’t because he’ll reject that commercial bullshit too.

Let Me Love You… is by Ne-Yo, appears on his fifth album R.E.D. from 2012. This is the first of two songs on this EP that were both originally performed by R&B artists, and both offer pretty much the exact same sentiment. You don’t love yourself because you’ve been treated bad in the past, hence you need me to love you back to health. In this one the main refrain, repeated a little too many times throughout the song, goes “Let me love you / And I will love you / Until you learn to love yourself.” Ne-Yo’s version is all nightclub stutter synth, drum machines and programmed handclaps. Not my thing. Oldham’s is vastly superior—just acoustic bass, guitar, and an occasional whining organ tone. So basically, the narrator of this song is trying to get a girl into bed by pretending that he’s somehow not the same as the asshole who treated her bad in her last relationship. He tells her, “I would like to show you what true love can really do,” and that’s about it. It’s a bag of boorish R&B clichés, and really only serves to get some booty pumping on the dance floor. At one point Ne-Yo sings “Don’t be afraid, let me help.” I say, girl, be afraid, be very afraid. Nevertheless, Oldham, as ever with his cover versions, mines the song for real emotion, finds the seam and owns it just as he owned all the covers he did on the Ask Forgiveness EP. His vocal is delicate and nuanced and melancholy and sincere. The minimalist instrumentation works perfectly for the song.

There Are Worse Things I Could Do… appears to be a song from the musical Grease originally performed in 1971 which then became a major motion picture in 1978, back when this reviewer was only ten years old. Apparently the Grease soundtrack was the second biggest album of that year, so there’d be a lot of people over a certain age familiar with this song. So this was originally sung by a character called Rizzo in reference to her reputation as an easy lay, and also for the fact that she thinks she might be pregnant. However, she believes that one of the worst things a girl could do would be to “flirt with all the guys … / Make them think they stand a chance / Then refuse to see it through.” She admits in the first verse that “it could be true” that she’s “trashy and no good” as she perceives herself in the eyes of the neighbourhood and kids at school. She admits she’s upset at the bad rep she’s getting, but apparently this is a karmic moment because she herself had badmouthed Sandy, the female lead, earlier in the movie. Anyway, blah blah blah, it turns out, by the end of this song that the worst thing she could do would be “to cry in front of you.” I’m assuming “you” are her classmates, or her boyfriend Kenickie who she split up with, having tried to spite him by dating a rival. Eventually they get back together. Oldham adds massive reverb to his voice to give it that essential 50s feel, and sings it boldly in powerful crooner style. It seems the guy who once upon a time warbled his way through a collection of songs barely in tune, can now do practically anything he likes with his voice, he’s become that good. That said, this song is not to my taste, and no matter who sings it, I’m not about to get on board. The only instrumentation here is a crisply recorded acoustic guitar played by Craig Wagner, “one of the most versatile young guitarists today” according to the University of Louisville website.

barely regal labelLoving You Is Fun… is yet another horrific pop country number, this time performed by pop country clone-schmuck Easton Corbin, appearing on his album All Over The Road. Is there any music genre more repulsive than contemporary country pop? Who buys this shit? Why is Oldham covering it? The basic premise here according to pretty boy Corbin is that love should be fun and devoid of complications. Fair enough, I can live with that, but that’s pretty much the sum of it. The lovesick narrator is “ten feet off the ground” and his “heart’s never smiled so much,” while claiming that “love don’t have to be a bunch of drama / A bunch of knock-down drag-outs, crying in the rain.” Corbin, like those fool’s gold cowboys above has also perfected the southern twang in his voice. The original is throwaway trash, but yet again, Oldham somehow makes it palatable. Someone called Chris Rodhaffer and Oldham’s past collaborator Cheyenne Mize from their 2009 Among The Gold EP joins him on chorus harmonies. The performance is warm and woody, harmonically pleasing, with a richly recorded acoustic guitar melody. It’s more upbeat and poppy than anything on side one, which is keeping with the mood of the song I guess. It’s okay. I don’t have much time for it.

Die Young… is a Kesha song from her 2012 album Warrior and the only one of these songs I actually knew before hearing this EP. It’s also the first time on this EP where it sounds like Oldham’s making fun of the song. This reminds me of the material he covered on The Brave And The Bold, the covers album he made with Tortoise in 2006. There’s a lo-fi industrial aesthetic, some slaggy vocals from Oldham, it’s overly slow and there’s something about the way Oldham ‘raps’ the verses that sounds satirical. Dunno where I heard the original, but it is definitely catchy and ubiquitous enough that it must have filtered into my conscious from somewhere, probably stereo systems in shopping malls. The song has a quirky ambiguous opening which I can’t quite understand. The scene is a nightclub of some kind. The narrator sings, “Oh what a shame that you came here with someone / So while you’re here in my arms / Let’s make the most of the night like we’re gonna die young.” Perhaps by “here” she doesn’t mean the club, but the city or town in general. In any case she’s encouraging him to cheat on his partner because she’s a “wild child” who’s “tearing it up,” “living hard” and “looking for some trouble tonight.” The fellow on the other hand is getting frisky and excited and out she comes with her best line: “It’s pretty obvious that you’ve got a crush / That magic in your pants, it’s making me blush,” which Oldham manages to sing in a weird sickly way. The upshot is that they only have this moment, tonight, together so she wants to “make the most of” it “like we’re gonna die young.” The tenor of this song is therefore a little more complex than the trashy country and R&B songs Oldham covers elsewhere on this record. I mean, there’s a certain kind of self-harming nature about it, or depression, mixed with frank sexual forwardness, not unlike Rizzo from Grease but transported 34 years into the future. I quite like the way the Cairo Gang have treated the song, but there’s something a bit grim and depressing about it. I hated The Brave And The Bold and this leaves me feeling similarly queasy.

Take Care… is the hit song by Canadian rapper Drake, the eponymous title track from his 2011 album. That song featured Rihanna. Of all the songs here, I quite like the original, which I’ve only just heard for the first time on Youtube while prepping for this writeup. The original uses a piano motif to give the melody a bruised melancholy quality. It’s not so easy to tell what roles the male/female parts play in this song. I get the feeling Rihanna’s voice, here played by Mary Feiock, is only there to echo Drake’s or act as some sensitive part of his character. i.e. she’s not playing the femme foil to Drake’s role, she’s part of his character. The basic essence seems to be that the male narrator is “dealing with a heart that I didn’t break” and just like Ne-Yo in that song on side one, his female side offers to take care of you and take things slowly. The ultimate goal is still the same old same old – he wants to get her into bed. “If you let me, here’s what I’ll do / I’ll take of care you,” and later, “I’ll be there for you, I will care for you.” It’s a bit more complicated than that though. The object of his affections won’t admit she’s in love with him, or so he tells us, and he admits that he’s made many mistakes of his own. Yeah, so it’s everything Easton Corbin doesn’t want in his relationship – complications. Oldham’s cover is magnificent, keeping the minimal instrumentation quite similar to the original. Feiock adds her voice to the process coming on like an even indier Kim Gordon. The criss-crossing of voices in the sexy R&B style is pretty cool. I like this a lot. The only thing that’s a little weird is Oldham’s rapping—he doesn’t quite have the vocal dexterity to do it at the same speed as Drake and as a consequence it also sounds a little pisstakey, or just awkward. It’s a good song though, and I’m giving this the thumbs up. Shahzad Ismaily also adds his voice to the woozy vocal section.

I’m On My Way Home Again… might have been a possible choice for the collection of Everly Brothers songs Oldham released with Dawn McCarthy in 2013, What The Brothers Sang. This sounds like it was recorded in the same session as the songs Oldham put together for 2013’s self-titled album, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. It has a similar acoustic guitar sound, and whimsical vocal style. “I’m On My Way Home Again” was the A-side of an Everly Brothers single released in 1969 but did not appear on any of their albums, and is now only available on a 1994 CD boxset compilation called Heartaches and Harmonies. The narrator of this song is resigned to his years of weary travel and has decided that it’s time to return home. The first line, “I don’t think I’ll ever get on a train again” says it all, although it’s hard to say how serious he is, because when he mentions his other options – Monday, looking out the window, Tuesday, drinking beer, and Wednesday, asleep at the TV – it doesn’t sound very inspiring. One wonders what has gone wrong. “I don’t think I’ll ever come this way again,” he says, referring to the “lonesome road,” which “used to press my back like a heavy load.” Sounds like someone’s ready to get back then, find a partner and settle down. This is unusual thematic material for Oldham who usually writes or covers songs with the exact opposite sentiment—he’s always ready to dump his lover and get back on the road. “I’ll put my guitar in a gunny sack / And walk away and I won’t come back.” It’s very short and ends up on a falsetto “ye-he” note.

barely regal backAll in all, definitely worth seeking out a copy of this if you’re an Oldham fan. It was initially only available (and still is at the time of writing) packaged with copies of Sailor’s Grave released in September 2014, so whether it’ll ever get an independent release remains to be seen. I said it at least three times in the above review, and I’ll say it once more – Oldham is one hell of an interpreter of other people’s songs. He’s got an extraordinary ability to spin the woolliest commercial shit into pure gold.


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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