Bonnie Princes, Love's Hazards and Ex-Norweigans
By Pajiba Music Writers | Music | March 25, 2009 |
By Pajiba Music Writers | Music | March 25, 2009 |
Welcome to Part 1 of Wednesday Music Reviews. Part 2 is a doozy, and goes up at 12:15. Thanks.
Balding and bearded former high school dropout and then Ivy League school dropout Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy—a.k.a. Will Oldham—seems like a pretty cool dude. He has appeared in 12 feature films—his first role was an adolescent preacher in a decrepit mining town in the fabulous John Sayles film, Matewan, his most Pajiba-recognizable appearance as Bill Mooney in Junebug and a role in Old Joy, as well as a bit part as a cop in R. Kelly’s infamous Trapped in the Closet—but it is clear that his primary love and his most notable cultural contribution as an artist is through music.
If you haven’t heard Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, maybe you have heard of his various Palace incarnations throughout the 1990s. Under the B’P’B moniker, he has grounded himself strongly as a folksinger/songwriter, a poet, and a pretty solid musician. His incredibly well received album, I See A Darkness, is such a strong presence in the Americana/Folk/Alt Country genre, and has appeared on countless “Best Albums” lists. And yes, he has a fantastic resume in the music world, but you know you’ve really arrived as an artist when Johnny Cash covers one of your songs.
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s latest offering, Beware, give the B’P’B fan more of what they probably crave: odd time signatures, fantastically poetic and salt-of-the-earth lyrics, easy to follow chord progressions, and a heapin’ helpin’ of folk-y bliss. This album falls seamlessly into his other musical efforts, continuing his style, but this one actually stretches if just a little bit. Heavier rock influences, a bit more twang in his alt-country attempts, with even a little flute thrown in for
good measure. And by the way, anyone that can throw the words “ham hock” into a song and not sound completely ridiculous has the chance of owning my heart forever.
“I Am Goodbye”
The difference between Beware and the other albums he has produced under the B’P’B name is that this one is uncharacteristically warm. Most of his music has a melancholy tinge mixed with wailing violins, slide guitars, and forlorn vocals, but this album starts on a decidedly sweet note. Not coming from a minor place here, Oldham really moves forward with his beautiful layering, gorgeous backup harmonies, and atypical inclusions on electronic instruments and a solid brass section paired with his more typical acoustic stylings.
So yes, the album is definitely worth the ticket price if you are a Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy fan, and in some cases, even if you aren’t. But the best part about this latest release? Someone, somewhere, convinced him to take on one of the bigger tours that has in many years, and that thrills me to the core knowing that I will get to see him in my favorite venue in my favorite city without the need to drive to a field in the middle of nowhere Kentucky. Wootie woot woot! Boo-yah! Shazam! Two in the pink, one in the stink!!
“There’s A Girl In Me”, from Louisville is for Lovers Vol. 9
It’s difficult to get a feel for the tone of Standby, the debut record from Miami indie rock band Ex Norwegian; there really isn’t an overall “tone” to speak of, and the styles are all over the map. But in order to give you an idea of what to expect, let’s examine the album’s sixth track, “Sudeki Lover.” For two minutes, it’s a longing alternative song touched by the 80’s, complete with reverb-y guitars, tingling sound effects, synthesizers and falsettos. Then, at the 1:58 mark, it becomes a bluesy classic rock song, sounding a bit like heavy Pink Floyd. At 2:31, we get seven seconds of ELO-type vocal harmonies, and finally, at 2:38, there’s 14 seconds of grungy, Nirvana-style thrashing to close out the song. Now, I’m a prog-rock nerd. I listen to more than a few bands who like to change keys, tempos and styles more than once throughout a song. But I don’t know of any who do it in songs under three minutes long.
That’s the allure of this album: it’s inventive and quirky without ever becoming too artsy, and it’s completely original. The strengths of Standby are aided by its brevity; out of twelve songs, only two clock in at over three minutes. As a result, nothing here overstays its welcome, so to speak. The record’s style, as I said, is hard to pin down, bouncing from jangly powerpop to alternative to dance rock to punk with the ease of a sorority girl jumping between frat boys. If anything, Ex Norwegian’s style could be called unconventional; some of the vocals are a bit nasal, and some of the chord progressions are a little odd. But when most of the songs finish up in two and a half minutes, these little quirks become not just tolerable, but pretty damn endearing.
Of course, that’s not to say that Standby is totally lacking in catchiness. After the slightly “off” but strangely memorable “Fujeira In My Dreamsssss” (not how it’s spelled, but that’s how it’s sung; it’s pretty awesome), we’re hit with two fantastically hummable tunes in “Don’t Bother” and “Something Unreal,” both replete with great harmonies, good guitar solos and one-liners that you’ll be singing in your head non-stop. “Dance Trance Pants” is both goofy and groovy, and the record closes with the spectacular “My Name Is Paul,” whose melody is so impossibly addictive that I’m pretty sure it plays in my head while I’m sleeping. (I might add that it was written about Paul Wolfowitz, as “A song to humanize the political elite class.”) The rest of the album finds the band doing the aforementioned style-bouncing, from the alternative-rock sounding “Fresh Pit” and “Add Vice,” to the almost-plagiarized-from-the-Beatles “Gross You” to the punk-rock “Pow3rfull.” While parts of the record are, admittedly, strange, they’re never dragged out long enough to warrant a push of the ‘skip’ button.
Somehow, all of these disparate influences come together to create 33 minutes of bliss; I’ve been listening to this album twice a day for the last week. Ex Norwegian has accomplished something rare—especially rare among debut albums—with Standby: they’ve put out a record whose whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. They’ve combined powerpop, classic rock and indie with a touch of the weird to craft an innovative and original sound. Their style may be hard to put into a genre, but it is most definitely all their own. I’ll be looking forward to hearing more from this band in the future.
Often, when reviewing a concept album, it’s tempting, even standard, to dwell heavily on the concept and forget that what you really examining is an album, a piece of music meant to be listened to. Indeed, it is mostly for this reason that so many critics bemoan the very idea of a concept record, often denouncing bands that try to branch out into new realms of musical storytelling.
I reject this notion completely.
No, for the sake of the reader, and to the end of giving the listener a better understanding of the merits or faults of this record, I will not even discuss the concept of The Hazards Of Love in anything but fleeting mention. Because if you choose not to rise above the murky task of deconstructing the complex narrative strung throughout, you might very well miss one of the most finely-structured, most beautiful albums of the year.
Don’t misunderstand me: The concept of the record is interesting, and the narrative is quite intriguing the further it goes; it’s steeped in classic literary symbolism and amusing characters. But the true value of The Decemberists’ fifth full-length release (and second for a major record label) is in its musical intricacies. The arrangements of each piece are nothing less than rich, with cascades of instruments blending into one another and pulling the listener down a rabbit hole of exquisite captivity. There are no breaks between the songs, and the effect is breathtaking.
Recurring motifs are key to this album’s success, and the melodies singer Colin Meloy has crafted here are beautiful and affecting. The four-part title song “The Hazards of Love” is, at various times throughout each recurrence, swirling, foreboding, chilling, and heart-breakingly beautiful. In this way, these songs encapsulate the old-school Decemberists sound, and long-time fans will recognize and enjoy their appearance.
But the album’s most striking moments are those that explore sounds the band has only previously hinted at. From the moment that “A Bower Scene” begins, we hear guitar that is uncharacteristically rushing, and the chorus, a classic rock jam-out, jars listeners expecting the same-old indie-folk sound we’ve come to expect from this band. The rest of the album from that point, with few exceptions, is soaked in the classic rock tone, to which Meloy said he wanted to pay tribute.
Probably the best songs on the record, and the most thickly rock and roll, are those which feature guest vocalist Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, portraying the evil forest queen. Worden’s voice rails with the bite of Fiona Apple crossed with the intensity of Janis Joplin, as she belts over a guitar and drums-driven punch of what, to Decemberists fans, is surely the hardest rocking music the band has ever produced. Indeed, for its sheer power, “The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid” is surely one of the great highlights of the musical year thus far.
The Decemberists have not completely abandoned their old aesthetic, however, and songs like “Isn’t It A Lovely Night?” and the lead single “The Rake’s Song” (a brilliantly catchy tune about child murder) seem as though they could fit perfectly on any other record the band has made.
The album features many guest “stars”, from the aforementioned Worden to Lavender Diamond’s Becky Stark (as Margaret) and Jim James from My Morning Jacket (providing backup vocals), and even guitar work from Robyn Hitchcock. But even as wonderful as all of these guest appearances are (and they are an excellent addition to the sound, putting the work in its own universe of varied inhabitants), it’s the songs themselves, crafted by one of indie rock’s brightest bands, that gives The Hazards Of Love its stimulating power. All of this despite, or possibly because of, the grandiosity of the concept behind the record.
While Colin Meloy’s rock opera could have easily become a bloated beast, another whipping post for those naysayers who believe that concept albums belong on the shelf, the literate singer and his merry band of players could hardly have crafted a more brilliant work than this. If it were to receive its due, The Hazards of Love would be a destined cult classic that would resound through the years as a mark of storytelling in a rock and roll medium. One can assume that it will miss the radar of rock critics, and it will certainly never become a bestseller. But for those who take the time, and give this album what it deserves, The Hazards of Love will not disappoint. It will lift the spirit and the mind alike, and leave an indelible mark on indie rock fans yearning to hear a new story instead of the same old nothing.