28 September, 2012

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #25

Palace Songs, Hope 12" EP (Drag City, 1994)

Will Oldham's early recordings were all issued under a variant of the Palace alias, and this particular iteration - in use only once for this EP and two singles - seems to be much praised. In fact, one Louisville poet and singer/songwriter I know who is something of an Oldham aficionado, as well as a friend of the man, ranks this as one of his very favorite Oldham records. I don't quite see eye to eye with that view. This is a very good EP, but in my opinion not quite the best music he was putting out at this time. The early '90's were a fairly amazing run for Oldham as a songwriter: his underrated debut There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You showed that his obsessions with Appalachian melody and songcraft, while not exactly confessional in the standard sense (his songs are often clearly from the viewpoint of characters other than himself, which is fitting given his background in acting), could be imbued with real and frequently terrifying emotion that felt deeply, brutally confessional - most of the songs on that record abounded with frightening depictions of people helplessly caught in the undertow of their own natures. Incest, alcoholism, violence and other deadly sins featured in some songs went head to toe with almost unbearably well-sketched portraits of loneliness so intensely felt that it essentially hollowed out the characters who were singing. Days In The Wake, which followed There Is No-One..., showcased a greatly improved songwriting ability, matched with even more intense and intimate performances; nearly the entire record consisted of Oldham croaking his heart out alone, with a very sloppily played acoustic guitar, yet it's easily one of the best records he's ever made. This EP dates from around the time when Oldham was flirting with a lightening of tone, a brighter ensemble sound that often sounded close to (very) inebriated country-rock. That description makes the music sound sort of horrible, and I definitely don't like the sound he had on Hope as much as I liked the very early Palace records. But it often captured the emotional power that characterizes most of Oldham's music. Viva Last Blues, which showcased this sound at greater length, is often considered one of Oldham's best releases. And both Hope and Viva Last Blues are very good. But not his best.

The thing about Hope is that it just isn't as consistent as past and future Oldham releases. For one thing, it really wouldn't have killed Oldham to actually learn what the chords were to Leonard Cohen's "Winter Lady" before recording it. Songs of Leonard Cohen is one of my favorite records, and I'm sure it's one of Oldham's favorites too, but Oldham's not playing or singing the melody of the song. Instead, Oldham sets Cohen's lyrics to a generic country lope and pretty much butchers the vocal melody. It still works because you'd have to do a whole lot to truly fuck up a Leonard Cohen song, but it doesn't stand up in any way to the original - and since Oldham is worthy of Cohen comparisons at his absolute best, this actually is a real disappointment. Also, a few people seem to single out "Untitled" as one of the best songs here, but I don't really even remember much about it, even though I've listened to it at least three times at this point. I like it when it's on, but it uses a chord progression pretty much everyone plays at some point when they learn how to play guitar.

The other songs range from good to great. "Agnes, Queen of Sorrow" is an instantly memorable song, due to the repeating line, "If you wait another day, I will wait a day" and a very good melody that slowly rises to a powerful crescendo. "All Gone, All Gone" and "Werner's Last Blues To Blokbuster" sound similar to each other, but they're both melodic and compelling songs, the last one in particular riding two piano chords to a great conclusion. "Christmastime In The Mountains" is probably the highlight of the EP: featuring an unbelievably gorgeous vocal melody (for someone who originally couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, Oldham has always come up with wonderful vocal melodies), a beautifully moving chord progression, and fascinatingly ambiguous lyrics, it easily ranks with any of the great Oldham songs. Hope shows Oldham between the unconquerable bleakness of the very early Palace material and the more straightforwardly romantic, more emotionally diverse, more professional and, in the end, more beautiful Bonnie Prince Billy material. It sounds like a transitional record to me. And aside from one more descent into almost impenetrable darkness under the Palace moniker (the underrated, insular, cold, sometimes sketchy but often brilliant Arise Therefore), Oldham would soon make the full evolution to the music he'd make as Bonnie Prince Billy.

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