Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Review: Bonnie "Prince" Billy - Beware

Bonnie "Prince"
Billy -
Drag City)

Will Oldham releases Beware, his eighth proper full length under his most frequent moniker, Bonnie “Prince” Billy just a year after the seventh – Lie Down In The Light. Since then, the ever-mystifying songwriter (with a slew of ravenous blog-ready-followers and more casual literate indie-types who often pigeonhole him) has had to, if a little begrudging and fidgety, come out of his Louisville hideaway and expose himself a bit more to interviews – particularly a characteristically thorough unpacking from the New Yorker.

With Beware coming so closely on the heels of Lie Down, it’s inevitable that the albums would sound, and feel, a bit like brothers, or at least the closing of whatever ellipses unknowingly trailed after last year’s stalwart release. The slightly-sanctimonious, warm fuzzy back-porch string-sawed sways continue, feeling even more immediate in their easy-going temperament (if a bit haunting at times). Beware's distinguishes itself with more tracks that strip down the instrumentation and put the bearded bedraggled voice, in all its wispy-yet-raspy coo and unsettling yearning upfront (“I Won’t Ask Again”). It sets this intimate if strung-out vibe recalling traditional studio-stuck pop artists, where you can just tell their recording at half past 2 in the morning, all coffee scorched and five-o-clock-shadowed.

With Lie Down the lyrics seemed to point inward then outward (many tracks included, in title or lyric, the words "every," "others," "everything," "everyone" "the king of infinite space," "There's my brothers, my girlfriends, my mom and my dad and there's me and that's all there needs to be.") Beware, meanwhile, seems to saunter away from the gathered group and sit down, cross legged for a bit of “me” time, or, rather, “I” time and some “you” time – much more personal lyrics that call out or seek the answers to deep and pained complications of the soul, be it of the narrator, the narrator’s lover or friend… “I’ll likely never know, the answer why…” he sings on the shimmering foot stomper “I Am Goodbye” combining three different guitars and altering tones with flute and violin.

Lie Down likely struck too closely to a straight jangly country thing – which might have jostled Oldham, (a bit noticeably in revealing quotes during the New Yorker piece, for the dutiful music historian and appreciator of varied aspects of rock n roll, be it folk, indie, noise or country…most importantly, that his aim was not just country…or, “Appalachian”) – Beware, in terms of its varying flavors (bongos open up to violins and eventually brazen trumpets and pedal-steel on the playful and fatalistic “You Don’t Love Me.”) These are comfortable stretches though – for any of his followers, more like a welcomed zing added by a dash of spice from certain guitar pedals or a bit more intricate percussion (dig the vibes on “You Can’t Hurt Me Now”), or poignant brass-blared crescendos. Softer lullabies that recall early Elvis or the more melancholy Roy Orbison are distilled of their dated feels and stretched out geographically, away from the twangy southern vibe and given an everyplace feel. Nothing really drives, or bangs or hits the gas and rolls hard – the stimulation is in his quavering rasp and coalescing instrumentation – the constant violin swing and the strum of the acoustic, forming their own sort of mystic and earthy, charmed waltz.

(words: milo)

Watch: video for "I Am Goodbye"

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