This came out of the blue, both literally and metaphorically (half the 500 pressings are blue vinyl) and seems not to have been distributed by any record label at all, but hand-distributed through record shops. Why these songs? Why now? There’s very little information given and the sleeve is plain white generic, but there’s a little note written in the centre of the label saying “thank you Alex Rose for beginning this.” Oldham pairs two folk songs here, with themes of unrequited love and love lost. I note the use of “Bonny ‘Blue’ Billy” on the labels. That links back to the Little Boy Blue 7″ from 2000.
On Raglan Road… was an old ballad written by Irishman Patrick Kavanagh, and has been covered by dozens of artists, especially Irish ones, perhaps the most famous, Van Morrison. It’s amazing how many country ballads are written by schmuck poets and balladeers about women they fancy but who have no interest in their slimy maneuverings. Guess it’s a universal and timeless thing. In this song, the poet spies a girl with “dark hair” that “would weave a snare that I might one day rue.” The “one day” turns out to be quite optimistic given that he first sees her on “an autumn day” but by November his happiness is “thrown away.” Perhaps his poetry was awful; “I gave her gifts of the mind … / … I gave her poems to say / With her own name there,” because now when she sees him, she crosses the street; “I see her walking now / Away from me so hurriedly,” but ultimately the blame seems to rest with her as far as he’s concerned (ergo, stalker alert), as he comes to the conclusion that he’s wasted his time wooing “a creature made of clay,” meaning she can’t appreciate his poetic gifts, just as an angel loses its wings if it woos a human. Oldham’s treatment of the song is a simple guitar ballad, his voice soft and rounded by reverb effects, while Jacob Duncan adds saxophone and clarinet and Sara Soltau plays violin to counterpoint the vocal melody. It’s pretty and lonesome, Emerald Isle kind of stuff. The sax almost sounds like an extra voice when it combines with Oldham’s vocal on certain notes in the third verse. The clarinet takes up this role in the fourth. Oldham’s become something of a master at this kind of sound and style.
Go ‘Way From My Window… was written by John Jacob Niles, and its earliest recorded appearance would be on his album John Jacob Niles Sings American Folk Songs from 1956. It appealed to Bob Dylan who played it live with Niles in 1961, and the title would appear as a line in at least one of Dylan’s own songs. I’m a huge fan of Niles’s version, his beautiful strange falsetto, and wide-eyed troubadour blues. This song is fairly straightforward—a fellow tells his lover, it’s over, go, get out of here, hence the title. To get revenge he plans on telling all his brothers and sisters “the reason that my heart is broke is all because of you.” Oooh, how cutting. The narrative doesn’t let us in on the source of his unhappiness, so we can only imagine that he’s been cheated on, or he just started to find her annoying, or maybe she poked fun at his small member. Nevertheless, in Oldham’s version, his bitterness has a compassionate edge; he advises her to “go on your way be happy,” and to “remember love, you’re the one / I really did love best.” There’s no instrumentation here — Oldham sings this hands free – well, not quite – there’s some echo treatment put on his vocal so that he sounds suspended in a vacuum chamber, but it’s gorgeous, lovely, shimmering stuff, especially on the high notes, and the tune, while simple, is really rather beautiful, especially on the last line of each verse, the way the melody drops a few notes, and registers disappointment. When Oldham hits the high notes, his voice softens somewhat—he can’t quite reach that sharp shrill edge that makes Niles’s voice so unique, but if anyone was going to cover this and make it sound as bittersweet as Niles’s, it was always going to be Will Oldham.
I enjoyed this record and I’m fan of this hand-delivered distribution method. I like the way Oldham has gone the very opposite of what bands like Radiohead are doing, self-distributing via digital channels. Even the mp3s for these two songs can only be acquired by sending an email to a royal stable address and quoting your x/500 number. See the whole Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy catalog at a glance HERE.