Palace, Mountain 12″, 1995

MountainfrontThis EP was released in the UK in order to bring together the four tracks from the “West Palm Beach/Gulf Shores” 7″ (1994) and the “The Mountain Low/(End of) Travelling” 7″ from earlier in 1995. Oldham has said that he sees 7” singles as a way of experimenting with a sound or style, so that if it ultimately fails, at least it’s only two songs and not a whole album. Thus the “West Palm Beach” single was his attempt at the Jimmy Buffet formula by singing songs about the beach in order to tap into our collective nostalgia. On the other hand, “The Mountain” (aka “The Mountain Low”) was the first Palace single that seemed to actually exist for the purpose of promoting an album.

mountainlabel1The Mountainis the perfect example of a song whose lyrics must be heard in order to comprehend them. You look at the lyrics on a piece of paper, and you find yourself involved in academic analysis. You hear them sung though, and no analysis seems necessary. It’s like when Oldham sings, “If I could fuck a mountain / Lord, I would fuck a mountain,” it’s intuitively obvious what he means. Intuitively. Sans language. Sans explanation. Trying to explain it only muddies the waters. But hear it in context among all the other lines of this song, and you realize that the words are only out of order because the narrator doesn’t quite know what he means either—he knows what he feels, but he doesn’t quite have the words to describe it, so he throws them all down, and if they come out wrong, they still come out right. That’s how it works. “The Mountain Low” sounds like a celebration of lust, sexual endeavour and free love. It could be that the music is as pellucid as a mountain lake, which creates the effect of limpidity in the (sung) lyric. Space between the instruments is perfectly poised, held, and the two guitar parts seem to complement each other beautifully. So, first the Oldham-singer would “fuck a mountain” if he could, “with a woman in the valley” then he’d “tower over peaks and in the sky,” and the woman would come “tumbling” to him “every night … with a different face and legs that will not quit.” Ultimately, based on the advice of a friend, he’d sell his belongings just to be there every morning “when she comes.” But see how I’ve muddied the waters with this attempt to fit the words into a coherent narrative? Hear the words sung among the rambling spindly rhythms and you hear a man expressing things that cannot be said, or said directly lest he be judged against some bogus bourgeois moral standard. And your soul-sense-subjective I self-persona hears all the words, intuitively unjumbles them into a feeling of understanding—nature, naturalness—Oldham mines nature for the natural heart of his sexual urges. Does he get satisfaction? Ultimately I think no, he doesn’t, because the song is all premised around that opening conditional clause, “If.” The whole song is presented as a possible way of being natural.

Gulf Shores…  is warm and soft.” You can practically feel the sand between your toes, under your legs, a deck chair, a balmy night where you feel you’re missing out on something, some kind of fun happening elsewhere. But between Oldham’s voice and the odd, retreating melody, we sense that the lyric is far more subtle and complicated than your everyday holiday song. The lyric seems to point to a one-sided argument between the narrator and his sister. Once again, beach imagery informs the scenery, phrases such as “laid long in the sun,” “laid here by the waterside,” “a blue heron in flight,” “a cold and fruity drink,” the surf, a starfish and bars that “light their lights.” All of this however is juxtaposed against the condition of his sister who seems terribly depressed; “You must start looking up,” he tells her. He’s concerned about how long she’s been lying in the sun, mentioning it twice more during the song. “Have you thought you could waste away?” he asks, then tells her, “you don’t care much for yourself,” observing circles “deep beneath [her] eyes.” He seems genuinely concerned, offering to take her for a drive, watch that blue heron in flight, see the sights of town or “drive down to another beach.” It’s very subdued, a little bit of poignant piano joins for the interlude, while pedal steel-type notes sweep hither thither, breezily. Sister has “let the family down,” all their friends have gone, and so too, the narrator wants to “disappear from sight.” Despite the lyrics, Oldham doesn’t sound upset so much as vague and weary, realising that his efforts to revive her may well be in vain. There’s a backing chorus swooning across the songscape, and various tones buzzing about creating atmosphere. And there you have it—another Oldham-inflected beach song. That old pig honesty, that determination to look things in the eye and describe the warts and all, and that wonderful predilection for turning tropes on their heads.

moutainlabel2(End Of) Travelling… starts with some delicate guitar and a crying pedal steel, into which Oldham’s earnest vocal inserts itself, winsome, clear and plaintive, sighing, resistant. This lyric starts on the word “if,” although the rest of the narrative doesn’t depend on the outcome of that conditional: “If you are sleeping Millie, you are okay.” There’s a lot of closing eyes and sleep in this song. The narrator would prefer she stay asleep. Millie might be a lover, or she might be a one-night stand. She might be a prostitute, she might be a friend. But he seems to be asking for her permission to leave: “Let me go, o Millie o.” The short interlude showcases more of that pedal steel and reveals quite a jaunty little melody. In any case, the singer has warm feelings for her, is concerned that she stay warm, pronounced with long emotive assonance in a line like, “The chill reminds me soon that some other one will swoon,” which was a rhyme he’d used on the “West Palm Beach” single. He’ll let her sleep while he goes away, “to Mississippi” to meet “the last one,” who will be “hitching up her skirt in a wood ladder-back chair.” The whole rhythm section drops out as these lines are sung, which lends them a post-script kind of gravity. If this is about ‘traveling’ it would seem to suggest something about meeting and parting, which must take its toll on the one who moves on. All this talk of sleep, and closing eyes among “this town” and “new places” creates a feeling of reluctance to move on, yet, desire not to have to stay. A choir joins him briefly for the final “o millie o” and one final dying note. It’s short though, and doesn’t have a strong melody.

West Palm Beach… glides in on a warm wing, a soft, slowly toned melody, a voice singing of the blues, as if the blues are a disease of the vocal chords, and the vocal chords can only but convey their feeble demise. In this song the narrator is miserable; he can’t get the sand out of his shoes, Florida’s done a number on his blues, “and the sky is threatening black and gray and the sun is a festering red.” It gets worse—his partner hasn’t gotten out of bed yet which means he won’t be getting fed. What a miserable sod. If there was a happier version of himself, “the surf has swallowed him up, he’s a memory now.” There’s some interesting use of language in the second verse. His Grandma, who lives down the road, has been nice to him since 73 “when her sun lost his lights,” which may well mean when Grandpop died, because “his ghost is a rising host above the briny blur.” And in one of his archaic usages of ‘would’ for ‘wish’, Oldham delivers this swanky line: “I would that soon some maid would swoon and his soul would capture her.” Not sure who the soul belongs to though. In the final verse, he’s forced to stay around for longer than anticipated because a “break in the weather has got the partner down.” Tired sunburnt chords twinkle and chime around the voice, but there’s sunset in the air, in the warm ambience, a cool 80s keyboard line drifts across the flat horizon, and that’s exactly what the song suggests—a flat oceanic horizon, a few wilting palm trees, washed out colours, everything sunbleached. The song ends in doledrums; “If she mourns too long I’ll know something’s wrong and I’ll leave her be / You can tell by his shoes he was born to lose, he was born for me.” Bummer in the summer, man. It’s interesting how much internal rhyme he uses in those final two verses, not something you see much of in Palace songs. Perhaps that’s something Oldham borrowed from Buffet, or from ‘gulf and western’ more generally. In any case, this particular memory of the beach, while evoking beach imagery such as sand, sun, surf and sea, seems to be a holiday that went on too long. It certainly is nostalgic, and genuinely regretful sounding. For some reason it reminds me of a karaoke video—not the music, just those faked broken hearts of a Japanese karaoke video.

MountainbackThe above is a mere cut’n’paste of my reviews from the two respective 7″ singles from whence these tracks came.

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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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