Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Why? Because I Like It

Artists: Bonnie "Prince" Billy; Will Oldham; Palace Music
Albums: I See A Darkness, Master and Everyone (BPB); Joya, Guarapero: Lost Blues 2 (WO); Viva Last Blues, Lost Blues and Other Songs (PM)
Source: Bought new (Master, Joya, Lost Blues 1 & 2); bought used (Darkness)

The act of writing about music is, when boiled down, a way of saying, "I can explain why I like or don't like something I listen to." It inserts an extra level of introspection into the process of listening, forcing you to both hear the music first-hand and have a sort of third-person remove in which you observe how you're listening.

This process is one I can do. I'm a little proud of it, too - it makes me feel a little like a doctor, who can see a bit deeper into the regular processes of the human body that are casually on display - though it also means it can take an extra effort to just listen to music casually, and take it in without pontificating on it.

The music of Will Oldham presents an unusual problem for me as an active listener. I've listened to his music in all it's various guises--Palace Brothers, Palace Music, Palace Songs, Palace, Will Oldham and Bonnie "Prince" Billy--and it somehow bypasses the explanatory muscles. The various names provide no clues (they are not each dedicated to a different mode, like Stephin Merritt's assorted identities that each match up with a specific way of making music) and there is not quite a direct chronological path (recording fidelity improves somewhat over time, but Oldham veers from acoustic to electric to solo to band and back again at will). There are antecedents to the kind of folk-based songs he writes, but they are only half-way helpful in grappling with the music at hand.

In short: I really like Oldham's music and keep buying more, but I can't say why.

This is frustrating. I'd like to say there's a strong emotional connection to the songs, but they are often written in an obscurantist style that seems to mean things that it doesn't. Sample lyric: " Now the sun's fading faster, we're ready to go/There's a skirt in the bedroom that's pleasantly low/And the loons on the moor, the fish in the flow/And my friends, my friends still will whisper hello" (from Viva Last Blues' "New Partner," one of my faves). Deep, huh? Well, sorta...but it doesn't exactly mean anything.

The music is often intimate (especially Master & Everyone, recorded so quiet & close you can hear Oldham breathing between verses), but it can also veer into loud, sub-Crazy Horse territory. The mood is typically dour, but don't tell that to Joya, which is fairly upbeat. Oldham's voice isn't particularly fantastic, though it is often pretty (especially on the Bonnie "Prince" Billy albums)...when it's not creaky and croaky and strained. And the sound is usually rustic, except when there are drum machines or processed noise brought into the mix.

Go figure.

So here I've spilled a few hundred words and said relatively little about why this works. And I could tap out a few hundred more without getting much closer.

The oddly simple conclusion is just: I like it. I'm confident Oldham's music is good, better than most, but my ability to explain why is strangely absent when any of these half-dozen discs are in the player. I have to remind myself to turn off the analytic filter in my ears, and just listen. You should, too.

SISOSIG? While I can't say precisely why I like Oldham's small army of himself, I'm quite sure that I do indeed like it. He's got music for nearly every mood, and it all stands up to repeated plays. There are new little details to ferret out of even the simplest arrangements, and the songs are often beguiling. It all stays, even if I don't really understand why.

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