Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy & The Cairo Gang, Tip The Glass And Feel The Bottom 10”, 2015  

tip the glass frontAnother limited edition release of only 300 copies (like the “Sixty Minute Man” and  Will Oldham on Bonnie Prince Billy 10″ releases), this time from the small label, Future Oak Recordings, who tell us that this EP “was recorded by Oldham and Kelly on their 2014 tour of eight Dutch churches. It documents four songs that embody the tour and marks the first time the duo have recorded these arrangements.” The information on when this would actually be released was given in ultra-slow drip, a tiresome marketing strategy for fans, but here it is now, and I’ve learned that the title Tip The Glass And Feel The Bottom is a line from the second song on Side A, originally by the Everly Brothers. Here we have four quiet acoustic covers from Oldham’s version of a Folk & Country songbook, each of them with a full sentence for a title—the first thing that binds them all together. Otherwise there’s a consistency of theme across both sides—themes of love lost, disappointment in love, more love lost and losing love. Most of the originals indulge in the sonic frippery of their cultural moment, lacking the kind of poignancy that Oldham brings to the table. At $25 for four country songs, this is somewhat overpriced, but at the same time, it’s a limited edition and would only end up in the hands of flippers anyway. I’ve played it a few times over in quick succession, and while it’s pleasant enough, it doesn’t sound like that much of an essential purchase unless you’re a completist. I mean, who else is going to get to hear these songs? For hardcore Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy fans only? Are there digital versions available? I dunno. Most of us who care about a release like this are vinyl fiends, and that’s exactly how Oldham intended it.

tip the glass labelI’ve Been A Long Time Leaving… written by Roger Miller, first appearing on his 1966 album Words And Music. Miller’s version is jaunty and poppy and, surprisingly for me, not having ever listened to Roger Miller before, his singing is a touch Dylanesque on this song. Miller’s version is very poppy and comic with a simple lyric about ditching a lover who “done me wrong.” The song’s narrator laments that he’s taken too long to leave his lover and get back on the road, but now that he has, “I’ll be a long time gone.” Then he heads out to the highway and tries to hitchhike out of there, although the trucks are flying by and not picking him up. That ever so faintly suggests he might not be leaving after all, and he’s really just expressing his pain. Oldham opens with the line “I’ve been a fool,” which he repeats with some hick yodel style falsetto. Why fool? “Forgiving you each time you done me wrong.” Snubbed guy expressing his remorse is the tone of the whole song, played on acoustic guitar, with another voice chiming in lightly from behind. Oldham is in weary and stoical country mode here, and as always with many of his covers, he strips them right back to basics, gives a suitably emotional vocal performance and nearly always succeeds in improving on the songs with his back-to-basics approach. This one had me singing along in my best falsetto—I’ve always been a fan of male falsetto when it’s used sparingly like this.

I’m Tired Of Singing My Song In Las Vegas… written by Don Everly. The original appears on the Everly Brothers album Stories We Could Tell from 1972. Like the Roger Miller song, the title pretty much sums up the whole song—Las Vegas sucks. The narrator is “tired” – tired of gambling and losing, tired of fake plastic trees, or more specifically “plastic men and painted girls” and “pantheons with plastic columns.” Having once been to Las Vegas myself, I concur—it feels as though you wound up on a cheap sixties sitcom. As noted in my introduction, the title of this EP comes from the second line in the first verse, “Tip the glass and see the bottom / Can’t you see you’ll never win.” I guess truth lies in the bottom of a pint glass. Once again, the music is a strummed guitar, and a wiry-voiced Oldham, crooner on a barstool, with backing vocal sweetly doubling the tone, worn velvet edge to his voice helping to illustrate the narrator’s disillusionment with Vegas: “Getting here is lots of trouble / I’m not coming back again.”

tip the glass labelYou Might As Well Smile… written by Jimmy Webb and originally performed by Glen Campbell on his 1974 album Reunion: The Songs of Jimmy Webb. The lyric, “you might as well smile,” records a moment of sad but tender stoicism between the singer and his dying partner. He praises her for her “serenity” and her “sanity” and requests at song end that she “shine it down on me,” as a way of making his loss all the more bearable. Tis a very sad song, yet heralds a singer gritting his teeth against the dying of his lover’s light; “But now the time, it grows shorter,” and no tears and no pain will change the inevitability to come. Glen Campbell’s version is typical early 70s fare—a country rock groove and swelling strings, though nothing exceptional. Oldham treats the song tenderly and delicately, as he should, given the lyrical subject matter. The pace is heavy and slow going, the melody slight, swelling and sinking along with the shifting vagaries of hope and despair in the lyric. The stoical stance taken, “You might as well smile / Ain’t no tears gonna drown the rain / … / Ain’t no pain gonna change what still remains,” is life in a nutshell. Oldham finishes by pushing his voice up into a high sharp yokel edge, as if to announce the pain behind the words.

I Never Thought My Love Would Leave Me… is a traditional song, once performed by folkie June Tabor and recorded for her 1983 album, Abyssinians. This is placed at the end as if to lead us back to the Roger Miller song that opens the A-side. Here the female narrator sings “I never thought that my love would leave me / Until that morning when he came in” almost as if she’s referring to the male narrator of “I’ve Been A Long Time Leaving,” that bloke on the highway trying to hitch a ride. She’s certainly not too happy about this, lamenting that her lover is off at some bar sweet-talking a new beau into his bed, and by song end she’s wishing “my father had never whistled,” that “my mother had never sung,” that “the cradle had never rocked me,” culminating in a death wish, “I wish I’d died, love, when I was young.” Obviously not someone who thinks it’s better to have lost in love than never to have loved it at all. For me, this is the best song on the record, just beating out the Jimmy Webb song above by a nose. This performance seems less structured, the impulses of strumming and vocal stylings coming and going in a whimsical kind of way. It also gets quite loud towards the end, to emphasize the narrator’s trauma, her sorrow. The guitar playing too uses sensitive finger pickings and arpeggio strums to emphasise the delicacy, the narrator’s bruised ego, comparing herself to a blind blackbird.

tip the glass backOkay, didn’t mean to suggest in my opening paragraph this isn’t worth your time. Great that Oldham keeps drawing our attention to these kinds of songs, adding his voice to the tradition. As ever, I’m in this more for the quality of Oldham’s voice than anything, the way it sounds like a brittle autumn leaf always about to break, or a summer breeze in leaves, or a winter icicle, or a spring blossom, something I can say without a crack of irony.

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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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