It’s become quite apparent that Will Oldham’s simply going to keep on doing it until his personal well of fresh ideas runs dry, and if his latest WOLFROY GOES TO TOWN, released under the long established nom de plume Bonnie Prince Billy is indicative, he’s not going to encounter that problem anytime soon. And where a big part of the guy’s appeal has always been the unpredictability of his moves accentuated by a rather prolific release schedule, WOLFROY finds him, if not settling down, then at least choosing to deeply examine one aspect of his hulking artistic gush to strikingly fine result. Specifically, this new one continues the fruitfulness of his work with The Cairo Gang and, most recently, the starkly effective vocal foil Angel Olsen. The connection with members of the Gang spans back to guitarist Emmett Kelly’s work on 2006’s excellent THE LETTING GO (he’s been a staple on Oldham’s long-players since), but the association with the full-on Cairo concern developed into something so appreciable that they earned co-billing on THE WONDER SHOW OF THE WORLD from last year and the Haitian benefit ISLAND BROTHERS 10” EP from a few months back. I’m unsure of why WOLFROY is credited to Bonnie Billy alone, but it’s not something I’ll devote more than a couple minutes to wondering about. The music does feel far less rehearsed than the contents of the two earlier records, so perhaps that’s part of it. But the album doesn’t shy away from complexity, and a little over two minutes into WOLFROY’S layered and precise second track “New Whaling” a mild vocal hiccup occurs that’s almost worth the price of admission alone. And if WONDER SHOW felt mildly like late-‘60s post-psyche country-folkin’ San Francisco in orientation (hinting at moments toward the undiminished mastery of Skip Spence’s gorgeous OAR) and BROTHERS radiated a more overtly rocking and singer-songwriter-like aura (that’s somewhat in league with Parsons and even Rundgren), this one really ups the sparseness of the folkish quality and nods toward non-flash roots-country elements. In other words, nothing all that new, but the real connective thread in all of Oldham’s work is plain to hear, investing the record with a graspable sense of continued artistic growth; namely, his consistent thematic investment in material of non-autobiographical intent. Unlike many artists in the roots, alt-country and even New Weird categories, Oldham is no nude confessor. His origins and continued work as an actor really shed light on the fictive orientation of much/most of his discography, and yet he’s also no homey nouveau-back-porch yarn spinner dripping with fake-sincerity; Oldham’s take on folk’s rich history is quite modern in orientation even if it lacks any blatant contemporary touches. If his stuff often feels out of time it is assuredly due to sonic intention and not that he’s trying to convince as some earthy/gritty “real” dude that just happened to emerge from underneath a long-fallen tree trunk with a detuned guitar and a rucksack full of tunes for the listening. And yet large groups of people relish dishing out dislike in Oldham’s direction due to their perception of arrogance or artifice on his part, though I strongly disagree, the bad vibes in my opinion stemming from his refreshing lack of false modesty, an occasional impatience with the rigmarole of often banal publicity requirements and the fact that he basically controls his own destiny in a scene largely still stubbornly beholden to businessmen. “Quail and Dumplings”, the record’s most forceful if not necessarily overly rocking track illustrates the old(er)/new(er) blend very well, being on one hand a solid empty-pot growling-tummy promise of better times ahead, but on the other kicking into high gear with strategic use of electric piano, lending the song the feel of an early-‘70s city-folky gesturing towards the album charts. It also points to how Oldham’s oeuvre has become increasingly resistant to easy comparative name-checking, though he’s never been an artist accurately tagged as derivative. Opener “No Match” does feel tangibly like ‘70s fringe country, with the give and take between Oldham and Olsen recalling Gram and Emmylou (how could it not?), and “New Whaling” returns to WONDER SHOW’s brief flirtation with a Blind Faith-like atmosphere before heading into the tense but mellow zone achieved by certain segments of the Brit-folk community, but whole big chunks of WOLFROY are damn near impossible to absorb as anything but this most impressive cat and the worthy cast of contributors that make up his current orbit. This is a feat of no mean circumstance. It’s what’s called a signature sound, and not many people have it. When this rare quality is considered with Oldham’s backwards-looking musical bent, his actorly tendencies and the desire to craft songs as beautiful little fictions, it becomes not a bit far-fetched to evaluate him as an artist most fittingly comparable in resonance of intent if not actual sound to old Aussie hand Nick Cave, though intrinsically American in orientation and less self-consciously literary. Another quite noteworthy facet of Oldham’s output is how he’s essentially remained with the Drag City imprint for his entire career, heading into his third decade with the Chicago-based label as one of only two artists of substantial longevity to do so (the other being Bill Callahan). This lack of restlessness on his part (and the unflagging support on the side of Drag City) likely plays a significant role in how Oldham’s records, like Callahan’s, hit such a qualitative plateau (a similar situation applies to names like Yo La Tengo, Lambchop and Tortoise). WOLFROY GOES TO TOWN isn’t a bit likely to sway folks resistant to his previous work, but that’s to its credit. Oldham remains admirably non-pop in orientation, having found a fertile place where his music can breathe and strengthen without the undue distracions or compromises of commercial demands. This is a record as good as its cover. And its cover is a very fine thing indeed. WOLFROY is destined to be one of the year’s best, so if you’re a fan it’s a must and if you’re just curious it’s a fantastic place to begin.
While I love Tom Waits like an eccentric, impulsive chain-smoking Uncle, I must admit that his work doesn’t really scratch my itch in toto until the release of '83's SWORDFISHTROMBONES, the record that marked the significant turning of a corner in his to that point struggling career, an artistic sea-change from whence he’s never looked back. Folks whose intro to Waits came through RAIN DOGS or FRANKS WILD YEARS or even BONE MACHINE or MULE VARIATIONS have been known to feel a bit flummoxed when exposed to the far more straight-ahead trajectory of his earlier stuff. Some eventually cotton to it without reservation, others appreciate it at arm’s length, and almost nobody in my experience dismisses it outright. The Tom Waits of ‘73’s debut CLOSING TIME to ‘80’s HEARTATTACK AND VINE is a markedly different artist from that which emerged with SWORDFISHTROMBONES, and one not inappropriately aligned with names such as Randy Newman (to which he was compared), Ricky Lee Jones (to which he was romantically involved), Bette Midler (with whom he sang a duet on ‘77’s FOREIGN AFFAIRS) and Bruce Springsteen (who covered “Jersey Girl” from HEARTATTACK AND VINE). Of all these names, the one that actually has the most in common with Waits isn’t Newman (it’s not a totally unapt comparison, but Newman’s a satirist and Waits is a synthesist, and later a surrealist) but Springsteen. Both were songwriters consciously adopting a performance persona that bordered on shtick; in Bruce it was a mixture of Dion/Del Shannon/Four Seasons/Phil Spector/pre-Beatles gestures paraded as spectacle for the legions that were finding post-Woodstock rock excess distasteful, and Waits in contrast proffered a blend of less specific and more comfortably theatrical beatniky/bohemian sensibilities combined with a downtrodden, emotionally strung-out jazzbo guise. Springsteen of course became wildly successful commercially (while in my estimation falling almost completely flat artistically) basically because he very effectively blurred the lines of the whole presentation, his overwrought Sha-Na-Na routine being widely, wildly mistook for authenticity (some may consider this a shrewd maneuver, but I feel it’s smoke and mirrors). On the other side of the coin Waits was artistically successful (while not yet his post-Herb Cohen self) if commercially limited since he made no attempt to hide that his whole artistic personality was an extensive examination of songwriting technique through elevated homage. That is, I find it impossible to believe that any observant listener in ’75 didn’t understand that NIGHTHAWKS AT THE DINER was an extended riff on an anachronistic archetype, specifically a hard-bitten, boozy, road-dog having an unbeatable night in a club of unusually receptive rowdies; in fact, the thing’s not inaccurately described as half a comedy record, though the jokes aren’t funny as much as they are “funny”. Waits was up-front in regard to his inherent theatricality and for this he paid the price until just he didn’t care anymore, subsequently shifting into a mix of Captain Beefheart, Kurt Weill, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and David Lynch. Naturally there are hints of this change in his early work, particularly from SMALL CHANGE forward, and there were lingering remnants of his younger self all over SWORDFISHTROMBONES (like the track “Frank’s Wild Years”, where he gets to indulge his Charles Bukowski/Raymond Carver side) and RAIN DOGS (“Downtown Train” shows just how close he and Springsteen could actually be in both form and delivery), but Waits’ decision to bail on an established career that was constantly hanging around the fringes of the mainstream for the uncharted waters at the heart of the ‘80s experimental/New Music playground has hardly any precedent. And to be frank, for Waits to still be knocking out quality albums nearly 40 years after first hitting the scene doesn’t really have many antecedents either. Yeah, the guy’s long overdue new one BAD AS ME is fresh in the racks, and my initial impression is that it’s as strong as anything he’s done since FRANKS WILD YEARS. Slipping immediately into his post-nuke Howlin’ Wolf-zone and grooving into some hyperactive locomotive jazzy-blues, “Chicago” makes it abundantly clear he hasn’t lost a step. In fact he’s probably gained a few. He also hasn’t misplaced his unerring ear for contributors. Marc Ribot is again heading up the band, a bevy of familiar names are back in the ranks, including David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, avant-percussionist/composer Gino Robair, Southside Chicago mouth-harp legend Charlie Musselwhite and some scraggly emaciated cat named Keith Richards, plus Sir Douglas Quintet/Texas Tornado-member Augie Meyers and Chili Pepper Flea both make the scene as newcomers. Like most of Waits’ output, BAD AS ME is a grower; the moodiness of the record registers first, then the high quality of the songs all begin to shine. But a few tunes are already starting to assert themselves. Examples: the Jay Hawkins-like title track, the mildly Pogues-esque “Pay Me”, the Country & Mexican of “Back in the Crowd”, the bluesy martial-industrial of “Hell Broke Luce” and the by now sui generis laments of “Last Leaf” and the closer “A New Year”. The thing that becomes plainly apparent when really immersing oneself in Waits’ later material is how methodically he’s cultivated a new persona to replace the one he kicked into the Tinseltown gutter way back in Reagan’s first term. This is in no way a bad realization. Very much an actor and performer (as opposed to a more intuitive musician), what Waits has been refining with stops and starts for the last thirty or so years resists being called shtick only because it’s so specific to his unique personality; for that same reason it’s hard to imagine anybody having the sheer chutzpah to blatantly cop his moves and modes for their own ends. And yet as he gets older his instantly recognizable growl, bark and bellow feels less like cagey affectation, registering as more natural than ever, Waits having finally grown into that gravelly, weathered voice, a sound he can truly call his own. Like that portly old mensch once said; how sweet it is. This is all a roundabout way of praising Waits as one of the last true high-profile musical weirdoes still breathing on this mortal coil, a real global treasure to be sure, and BAD AS ME is a much needed addition to his discography after a seven year gap in new material.