So firstly, who is Ciaran Lavery and why is he covering Will Oldham? Good questions for which I have no answers. Is this a desperate bid for indie cred or is Lavery a long time Oldham fan? Likely the latter, although it’s worth noting that three of these five tracks all appear on Sings Greatest Palace Music, making you wonder if Lavery’s fandom extends much beyond the BPB years. He’s an Irish singer-songwriter with about 4 albums under his belt, with a new one due 2017. He sounds really mainstream to me, by which I mean, well you know, polished production, clean “proper” singing, professional guitar playing, which all adds up to ‘nice’ and a bit boring. But, no. That’s me being churlish. Voice-wise, I’m getting hints of that guy out of Turin Brakes, but veering closer to Ben Ottewell, and moving further along that spectrum, Lyndon Morgans of Songdog, and at his worst, Jonah Matranga of Onelinedrawing whose awful cover of Bob Dylan’s “With God On Our Side” is to Dylan as Lavery is not to Will Oldham, because that would be an unfair comparison. Lavery is listenable and likeable.
I think this is the first ever full-length EP/album devoted to covers of Will Oldham songs by a single artist. There’s the various artist Louisville For Lovers compilation cover of the first Palace album, There Is No One What Will Take Care Of You on vinyl, and I think there may be another one or two various artist collections only available on CD, but for a single artist doing only Oldham songs, Lavery has made a first, and kudos to him for that. On side one he kills it. Side two, not so much. Roll the tapes Bumstead…
New Partner…is from Viva Last Blues (1995) and seems to be a popular song of Oldham’s, though I can’t say it was ever a stand-out for me. It might be more well known from Oldham’s own cover version as it appears on Sings Greatest Palace Music (2004). And this is where I’m willing to be kind to Lavery because he draws attention to the lyrics for me much more than Will Oldham ever did. The song links strongly to Willie Nelson’s “Always On My Mind” with the chorus refrain repeated often, “You were always on my mind.” Nelson’s song is a tale of regret and recompense. Oldham’s lyric takes this process of grieving for that lost relationship one step into the future, where he’d prefer to sing about his “new partner, riding with me,” looking more into the future with only one eye on the past. That’s not to discount the suffering he still has to go through before he emerges fully clear from that past relationship and his “awful action” with “motives unclear.” What Lavery brings to this song is a heightened sense of melody. It opens tentatively, acoustic guitar, violins hovering faintly overhead, wisps of digital feedback, and an upfront vocal that really brings the imagery to the fore. It’s certainly ‘contemporary’ sounding. Lavery is most effective on the chorus, reaching a falsetto that is magical, briefly bell-like. A drumbeat and mournful strings join for the second verse, which provides a sort of relief, while the production sounds positively three dimensional. It’s moving, slow, quiet, and really quite beautiful, while a chorus harmonizes behind Lavery. Suffice to say after several listens this really grew on me. Great way to open the EP. He certainly puts the ex-lover more front in the mind of everyone with his more dramatic reading of the chorus line, yet when he gets to the new partner lines, the volume increases, and there’s a rather loud ‘now’ at song-end that pushes everything just a bit too far into the red of the false-flag. But we can forgive that. A live version of this appears on the BPB album Is It The Sea (2008) and an acoustic rendition on the “Strange Form Of Life” 12″ (2007)
Horses… was originally released as a 7” single and never made it to album status except for the compilation Lost Blues And Other Songs (1997) and a revamped version on Sings Greatest Palace Music (2004). Originally written by Sally Timms and Jon Langford of the Mekons, one of Oldham’s major early influences, I’ve always heard this song as a yearning for some wild west past as sung by some young guy who’s committed a crime and is waiting for judgment. He sings of folks “drawing straws inside the courtroom,” and later of “the wrong side of the track,” while lamenting that he’d be out riding horses “if they’d let me,” and of the “devil by my side.” So the “poor boy” has got himself in trouble and can only dream of being free. Lavery’s rendition includes piano accompaniment, and shimmering ambient chorus, and once again, he brings the melody to its fullest realisation, making me fall in love with this song all over again. It’s the subtle touches that make this so effective, the exercise of restraint (only just), and the strings, and Lavery has the good sense to keep the histrionics he’s clearly capable of out of the picture. “Everybody needs an angel / But here’s this devil by my side” – lines like these come to take on a new poignancy when cast against such lush yet minimal instrumentation. Finishes with a few blasts of trumpet and some unfortunate non-fill squelches on my vinyl edition. Again, absolutely beautiful.
Bad Man… is from the quietly excellent self-titled, self-released Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy album from 2013. On that collection this song made sense somehow, fitting into the bruised melancholy selection of songs, often about men who had done wrong. This song is more like a warning, telling someone to stay away “because I am a bad man.” The way Oldham sings it is pretty much the only way to sing it – with subtle threat and dread – and this should never have been chosen as a cover by Lavery because he makes it sound too nice with none of the peril and desperation hanging over it that you hear in the original, owing to a too lavish production aesthetic. Oldham genuinely sounds dangerous; Lavery merely sounds like he’s ventriloquising someone else’s bad mood. “Mind your business and stay seven feet back,” and “Don’t say that I told you, that there’s nothing here to fear,” when clearly there would be if you were confronted by Will Oldham singing these lines. The instrumentation uses a staccato strum and electronic whine, with low bass thump to effect that menace, but it rings false when placed up against Oldham’s simple guitar strum and quiet vocal. Too much of the soft/loud thing. Lavery’s vocal doesn’t convince me here.
Beast For Thee… crikey, it would take balls to cover this and think Bonnie fans are going to like it. There’s a thought – this EP is not really for Bonnie fans is it? It’s a way to introduce Oldham to Lavery fans. This song from Superwolf (2005) is only my favourite freakin’ BPB song of all time, it’s virtually perfect in its original incarnation and any attempts to mess with it are only asking for trouble, including Will Oldham’s own lame cover version from 2012. So maybe props for Lavery for trying it on, but why, when you’ve got so many other songs to choose from? Beast For Thee is a love song, as perfect and weird and honest a love song as ever there was, a song not of unrequited love exactly, but certainly one that doesn’t seem fully reciprocal—these lovers aren’t on equal footing, which is what makes the singer’s outpouring all the more poignant: “Why aren’t you kind to me? / You could so easily / Take me in your arms and see / A donkey – a beast for thee.” The original, sung with Matt Sweeney is so blindingly, achingly beautiful, that it completely eclipses any and all attempts to cover it, and all I hear is someone dully reaching for the stars and grabbing only a firefly. If anything, Lavery doesn’t even try to strive for the majesty of the original. He keeps it simple, while cello whines in and out of the melody, and it’s probably more effective for that. “Like this song?” he seems to be saying to his fans, “then you ought to hear the original.” This is warm, and rises and falls appropriately, but it sounds subdued and buried here in the middle of side two. Instrumentation is kept quiet and minimal. The truly beautiful moment comes when the song segues into the chorus of “I See A Darkness” with an actual choir towards the end. That’s cheating though. You can also find a live version of this song on the 2005 double album, Summer In The Southeast.
You Will Miss Me When I Burn… another tough number to choose to cover given that Mark Lanegan had already nailed this song brilliantly in his rendition with the Soulsavers in 2009. Lanegan, with his burnt-throat rasp ramped up the drama in this song without even trying, whereas young Lavery has only a virgin’s gravel voice to make the song his own, and he doesn’t even get off the ground. “You Will Miss Me When I Burn” is a song of pain, suffering and abject misery at the loneliness of life. The main refrain, “When you have no one / No one can hurt you,” speaks volumes about what the narrator’s gone through; “behind you,” he warns, “there are awful things” which go unsaid. Lavery and piano, very simple, bare bones stuff. I don’t really go in for the harder pushier vocal style on the chorus line, that strives for drama. Weirdly, Lavery cuts the song short at about the two minute mark and forgoes the rest of the lyric. It’s merely competent. “You Will Miss Me…” originally appeared on the Palace album Days In The Wake (1994) and a revamped version on Sings Greatest Palace Music (2004).
So, that was a flurry of self-contradictions wasn’t it? The first two times I heard this, I was determined to slag it off. Then I got hooked on it. Then I realised it was only side one that was doing all the heavy lifting, while side two seemed to exist only to bolster the majesty of side one. If he’d chosen three different tracks there, he might have a gold medal with this release. But anyway, this is worthy, and I’m pleased I came to the right conclusion in the end. This piece of vinyl was released primarily to coincide with Record Store Day 2o17.