Bonnie Stillwatter, The Devil Is People 12”, 2015

bonnie stillwatter frontThis would be the second brewery-related release Oldham’s been associated with in recent times. The previous one was a 10” single released in March 2013, which had the Bonnie Prince covering a doo-wop number from the sixties called “Sixty Minute Man” in order to promote a beer called “Sixty-One” for the Dogfish Head brewery. So, Stillwater Artisanal Beer is another beer brand, owned by a fellow who is a member of the band Watter. Bring on board Bonnie Prince Billy, put ‘em all together and that’s how you get Bonnie Stillwatter. Unlike that hard-to-obtain 10”, this EP has been given a general release on the Temporary Residence label. It was first billed as an “LP” but really all it amounts to is a single track, over 5 minutes long, on the A-side with a remix on the B-side. i.e. Not much bang for your buck. It’s good though—small consolation. Oldham’s role is to provide lyrics that hang loosely over the music like a poem sung to fit the rhythm. We’ve heard these kinds of things before, most notably on the Marquis de Sade collaborations, Get On Jolly and Solemns, a one-off 7” from 2008 called “Notes For Future Lovers,” and tracks he made for an art project called “Afternoon” in collaboration with Ashley Macomber and released in 2012. Likewise, the back sleeve refers to this project as “a conceptual collaboration of artistry and friendship.”

bonnie stillwatter labelThe Devil Is People… opens with a tentative drum beat, a bass hum, indicating the slow build, and then what sounds like a middle eastern vibe, perhaps the ‘pianet’ listed as an instrument on the sleeve contributes to the effect. My closest reference to the exotic sound of this particular mix of instruments is the Cure’s album Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me of which certain songs seems steeped in the Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs” aesthetic. This builds for a minute before Oldham’s voice enters, a vaguely spooky tone and the music changes, crashes, pulls back and crashes again in a sort of post-rock ebb and flow. The musical dynamic is in fact tailored precisely to the lyrical flow and the shifting intensities in Oldham’s vocal textures. As the song builds, the impending sense of drama is heightened. What of the lyric then? That too is a rather strange and spooky first person account of a fellow who has “been away … in some kind of bind,” and undergone a terrible change, his past “boy” self has been “obliterated” so he must now start “over on my own.” He’s already turned “bad” and therefore “can’t go bad” again. So this is all exposition leading up to the climax where he finds himself “surrounded by an animal” who sings to him the line from the title, “the devil is people,” something he profoundly agrees with. This identification with the animal (wolf?) suggests the narrator sees himself as an animal too, thus wanting to reject the notion of his socialised and civilised humanity. However, the animal swims away, “beyond” and he cannot follow it, cannot go as deep in the water—the call of society, moral codes and ethical considerations, the social contract, the law—all of these prevent him from living as wild and free as the animal. “The devil is people,” he sings, though it’s the animal singing to him, and thus the identification is rendered to us. Hark back to some of the early lines which now make more sense: “I jumped the fence / Put border to my mind / Shake the way of this life off” – i.e. like a domestic pet, a dog say, seeking freedom, escaping “people.” The final lines about the animal swimming off “and so I let it go,” are repeated thrice, bringing an impending sense of regret, loss, tragedy. The music builds to something stupendous before winding down and fading out. Certain words throughout the song, words at the end of a line such as “people” are wailed and warbled and elongated in an eerie voice, a real sense of drama and pathos and urbane horror. It’s cinematic in its scope and the residual effect is that you wish there was a whole album of this kind of material.

bonnie stillwatter labelThe Devil Is People (The Cheech Wizard’s Hemiolic Chantey at the Edge of the Anthropocene Epoch)… is post-laptop glitch rock, atmospheric, eschews the big crashing swells and power chords of the A-side for something far weirder, distorted, and pretty cool. The sound effects are subtle, a tinging tone, static, a bass hum slightly out of control, while Oldham’s voice rides over the music much more clearly without the crescendoing distortion drowning him out as on the A-side. The interlude between the end of the first two verses and what might count for a chorus makes use of a muffled bass drum thump and other percussive and manipulated guitar tones to build up the eerie atmosphere before Oldham starts singing the ending chorus: “It swims beyond and I can’t swim so low / And so I let it go…” An iron-edged aeroplane tone, a machine-like hum, the oil heart of something deep in the narrator’s blood, something primitive and primal and animalistic—these tones brim over and eventually fade as Oldham’s narrator finally lets go.

bonnie stillwatter backThis was released in various limited editions of coloured vinyl, and already I see, at the time of writing (April 2015) various European resellers amping up the price to 5 or 10 times the price from  Temporary Residence, where there are still plenty of copies available (also as of April 2015). Anyway, if this were to lead to a whole album’s worth of material, I’d be singing its praises.

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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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