I’ll always recall my introduction to Will Oldham. On one of my frequent jaunts into the Capitol City along with friends, we found ourselves at Olsson’s Books and Records with the purpose of procuring recorded treats, and as I thumbed through the 7” stock I noticed the Palace Brothers’ debut 45 “The Ohio Riverboat Song”/”Drinking Woman”. Even though I’d seen him portray a teen preacher in the film MATEWAN, I had no clue who Will Oldham or Palace was at the time. But the disc was on Drag City, a label that was on quite a bit of an indie-rock roll at that moment with Pavement and Royal Trux in particular, so I impulsively picked up the single, thinking it was a smart gamble given the circumstances. And it was. Hell, back home that night I spun the disc something like a dozen times. Then the sun came up. That was the way of my life back then, and in some ways I miss it. But like many of us Will Oldham has come a long way since then, and the dude has been so damn prolific I haven’t been able to completely keep up with the flow of his vast thing. This is okay though, because I suspect that’s just how the cagey cat wants it. I’ve been listening to his stuff under the nom de plume Bonnie “Prince” Billy quite a bit lately however, and I keep coming back to last year’s outstanding LP with The Cairo Gang. Titled THE WONDER SHOW OF THE WORLD, it finds Oldham in deep synch with frequent collaborator Emmett Kelly, and while the sounds therein are not exactly what I’d call unexpected, the whole disc radiates with an inspired focus that lends it an air of distinction. It’s essentially a spare, at times melancholy folk record, but with some well applied distinguishing accents, the most notable maybe being a country-rock vibe. This is not unusual for Oldham, but here it feels (probably coincidentally) very late ‘60s/early-70s San Franciscan. Yeah, there’s a little bit of the stuff of Alexander “Skip” Spence’s masterpiece OAR in the grooves of this baby. And that’s not all. It might just be the stinging electric guitar touches on “Teach Me To Bear You”, but I can’t help but feel this LP hits upon some ideas that folks from Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service could’ve explored to fine effect right at the dawn of the 70s. Well, they didn’t. They both turned to crap instead. And who am I fooling, if the Airplane and Quicksilver had attempted something approximating THE WONDER SHOW OF THE WORLD, they likely would’ve blundered it up. Country-rock was seldom a successful genre in retrospect, most of the failure stemming from a desire to be laid-back or mellow instead of moody or tense or gritty. That’s one of the negative effects of too much marijuana. And anyway, WONDER SHOW isn’t country-rock. Again, it’s aptly described as folk, but it’s very personal; not introspective but emotionally and lyrically direct, and he strikes a fine balance between confessionals and a more broad sense of storytelling. Up-tempos are largely absent, percussion is spare and while there is some strum it takes a backseat to a substantially forlorn atmosphere. As such it’s a great late-night album, another thing it shares with OAR. And as “Merciless and Great” develops it starts feeling like some sorta lost demo from Clapton and Winwood circa the dissolution of Blind Faith. This is nice. But the biggest sum of this record’s total belongs to Will Oldham. The pleasant guitar and straightforward vocals of “The Sounds Are Always Begging” could be an early-‘70s pop single if the lyrics weren’t so eccentric. And that sense of oddness gently asserts itself all over this album as it does throughout Oldham’s work, a natural, unforced touch that never smacks of unearned, affected strangeness. The record’s centerpiece is “That’s What Our Love Is”, a casually unwinding yet crisp passage of acoustic gliding that blossoms into a fine, soaring conclusion. So as I said the guy’s made great strides since that first single. His sound back then was kind of a harbinger of the soon to explode New Weird American Underground, but he grew from that pretty quickly, joining his Drag City cohorts Bill Callahan and the sadly missing in action (at least musically) David Berman as a beacon of ingenuity in the contemporary singer-songwriter context. Sometimes Oldham’s a little bit country, at other moments he’s rocking, and he’s often experimental and open to the input of others. But he’s always Will Oldham, as unique and talented an individual as anybody currently on the scene, and with a resolve that should find him at the forefront of musical affairs for quite some time.
One way of approaching the ever mounting plethora of recorded music is by looking at the long form and the short form, with LPs/CDs inhabiting one side of the spectrum and EPs/7”s/isolated tracks defining the other. Many performers used to be very clearly defined and marketed as “album” artists or “singles” bands for instance, and even now with the ability of the consumer to purchase individual tracks and to blend them into the randomness of digital shuffle mode, this is still very much how contemporary music is contextualized. Back in the heyday of this sorta thing, when a band was equally adept at recording great albums and crafting killer singles, they still inspired different approaches to fandom; if a listener’s favorite documents by The Rolling Stones are AFTERMATH or EXILE ON MAIN STREET then they are assuredly an album person, but if the HOT ROCKS comps are the main doorway into Stones-ian appreciation it can be surmised that those under its sway are lovers of the short form. Over the last few decades the commercial possibilities of the short form has diminished considerably. From my perspective, with the exception of the occasional hip-hop or R&B entry, the singles charts and contempo commercial radio are largely a wasteland. I trace this problem back to the 1970s, but that’s no great revelation. Punk tried to fix the problem, but people weren’t ready. I digress. The short form is still alive and well, always has been in fact, but its days of chart supremacy are largely over. Needless to say, no more Motown, Stax ain’t never coming back, and the time when a transistor radio swinging from a bike’s handle bars could crackle out an hour or more of new music without stumbling over a bum tune is long gone. But I’m not complaining since, again, the short form is still with us, it’s just shifted in the placement in the musical landscape. It’s now well utilized by smaller, sometimes unabashedly underground acts. Hell, right now there are more limited edition 7”s of neo-garage-punk grunt in the racks than I can shake my moneymaker at. Larger, bigger selling artists or bands also use the short form; Arcade Fire’s first release was a self issued EP for instance. But while there are more 7”s and EPs produced in any recent year than one person could ever keep track of, very few current bands excel at both the long form and the short form. One that does would be The Decemberists, but their discography’s not that prolific. Another that does is Will Oldham, and he’s a guy with copious releases under his impressive looking belt, many long and even more short, a somewhat confounding list of EPs, 7”s and comp tracks that I’ll probably never all get to hear. Oh, well. I have heard one of his newest entries into the short form sweepstakes, that being the ISLAND BROTHERS 10” with the Cairo Gang, and it’s very special. Where WONDER SHOW OF THE WORLD gives me a definite feeling of Ye Olde San Fran in its touches of country-rock applied to a folkish template, the A side title cut of this is straight-up full band (great piano) country-rocking, the mixture of Oldham’s and Angel Olsen’s vocals recalling the sublime blend of Gram and Emmylou, with the instrumentation landing right in the heart of Texas. Yes, it’s a stomper, but it also holds a more meditative midsection that shows he’s not just aping the old stuff. Guest trumpet by smoking Chicago jazz guy Rob Mazurek is extremely well employed, and the whole track is a joy from beginning to end. The flip, “New Wonder” is quite different. After a dozen or so listens, it reminds me of an early cut from Todd Rundgren if he’d been raised in the rural south. It’s a grand little statement and coupled with the A side shows the ease of Oldham’s short form mastery. Where many folks corral songs onto 7”s and EPs that are essentially leftovers, stuff that didn’t fit into the scheme of full-length albums, I’ve never gotten that impression from Oldham. ISLAND BROTHERS stands proudly alone, in no way a bone tossed to the desires of completists. And on a final note, this EP is a benefit for the fine people of Haiti, the proceeds going to Edge Outreach, a program serving to bring potable water to the people of that nation. With recent environmental catastrophes at home, it can be easy to forget or sideline the needs of those outside our borders such as the Haitian (or Japanese) people. But in this case I think identifying and assisting the plight of the global community (and yes indeed, this includes those requiring help right here at home) can help inspire us away from the far less constructive environment of our Government’s petty squabbles over money and the endless downward spiral of identity politics. ISLAND BROTHERS appeals to the better side of our nature, a testament to the potential of art to give and to heal and to strengthen, and from the amazing color cover photos of New York Times shutterbug Damon Winter to the excellent sounds spiraled into its grooves, it’s an inspiring total package. Kudos to Will Oldham, The Cairo Gang and Drag City for a job well done.