By: Geoff Topley
Bitchin Bajas and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy | website |
Released on March 18, 2016 via Drag City
Will Oldham is surely one of the most prolific artists of modern times. Under the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy guise, he regularly issues albums of varying quality, both as solo endeavours and collaborations. From the debut, I See a Darkness, I have eagerly snapped up each release and often wondered why I did. Much like Oldham himself, the love affair I have with him is something of an oddity. So now the opportunity to write about his music has come around with Epic Jammers and Fortunate Little Ditties, a collaboration with Bitchin Bajas. I couldn’t have selected a more challenging album, for this is really something else.
Stemming from a three day residency in London’s Café Oto, this album contains nine tracks of out-there curiosities that the PR blurb tries to relay as a thing of wonder but ends up sounding a little like hippy bullshit. The artists involved certainly allow their freedom of expression to come to the fore as I don’t recall ever having heard an album quite like this one. My initial reaction to it was to perform a neat about-turn but once you get into the mood, it’s a much more appealing listen.
My knowledge of Bitchin’ Bajas was non-existent until now. A quick search on Wiki reveals it is the solo entity of Cave’s organist/guitarist, Cooper Crain. As I mentioned already, I have almost all of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s albums and a fair few of the collaborations (Tortoise/Matt Sweeney), but I have found some of these records to be difficult to absorb. Oldham has a tendency to veer in and out of brilliance but when he hits the spot, his music is majestic and awe inducing. At his best when producing full band alt-country, this record is unlike any of his previous work.
Creating a new genre, which I shall christen Country-drone, things kick off with the banjo plucking loops of ‘May Life Throw You a Pleasant Curve’. Intermeshed with rickety acoustic guitar, Oldham’s vocals are a mumbling mess but there’s a pleasant melody lurking in there. Conjuring up images of cornfields a sole flute adds some additional nothingness, the track is barely there and incredibly loose. A similar backdrop of random banjo and guitar loops mix with some random splashes of unidentified percussive sounds on ‘Nature Makes Us for Ourselves’. The effect is hypnotic and droning and very disorientating. Oldham’s vocals are now a blethering interjection with neither melody nor hook to cling onto. Outstaying its welcome over a sprawling eight minutes, the title track is repeated for an age to induce either sleep or insanity.
Tin cans on a close line rattle in the wind like piss-poor wind chimes while ambient hums fill the void. This is ‘Your Heart is Pure, Your Mind is Clear, Your Soul Devout’. Sounding like something the deranged killer in True Detective (Series One) might assemble, there is zero melody or constructive instrument pattern. Eight minutes of “What the fuck?!”. One thing this album does possess is excellent song titles and ‘Your Whole Family are well’ brings the first moment of enjoyment to me. The ghostly chanting of the song title is a delightful little hook and Oldham absorbs a heaving bag of emotion before singing, when he actually musters up melodies beyond a murmur. The rising throb of ambient atmospherics is joined by the returning flute and the overriding feeling is of intense heat, dust clouds and summer sun. Clouds part and heavenly rays burst through, it is blissful and reassuring. Like God passing on a message from dearly departed loved ones, I’m reminded that I am an orphan. No other song has had such an effect and it is most strange.
Anyone singing “ha-ha-ha” over and over repeatedly should be a very irksome challenge to listen to. Oldham does it and it’s beautiful. Swirling keys add a spaced out warmth to ‘Despair is a Criminal’ and it’s a lovely thing. Ladies and Gentlemen, we are floating in hillbilly space. By now, it feels like mind altering drugs have been vigorously consumed. The oddly bumpy bass loop and backtracked instrumentation of ‘You are not Superman’ is deeply disorientating. A pissed fiddle player lends a hand to weird you out some more. Do not listen to this album while in charge of an automobile.
I’m kind of lost for words with ‘Show Your Love and Your Love Will be Returned’. Droning keys and gently plucked acoustic guitar form the backdrop to allow Oldham to repeatedly intone the title. The instrumentation swells a little in volume as the track moves at funereal pace through its eight minutes. And that’s it. The ‘jam’ aspect of this album is truly exposed in ‘You Will Soon Discover How Truly Fortunate You Really Are’. Flickering ‘The End’ guitars hover over an earthly hum while a flute noodles away. Oldham’s voice is heavily processed and cracks while aiming for high notes. By the end of the meandering mess he’s chanting loudly like some countrified shaman. The tempo and mood of closing track ‘Your Hard Work is About to Pay Off, Keep On’ is joyous, like a campfire sing-along. The only track on the album to resemble a regular song, I imagine this is what drugged up cowboys might sound like. There’s an abrupt ending, like the plug on the recording desk has been pulled, given the out-there nature of this album, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility.
Ultimately, the album is a very eccentric collection of experimental soundscapes and veers heavily into extended jam territory. At times, it draws you in and immerses you with its wonderment but the overriding sensation is that this music has been made solely because the creators just wanted to do it. I’m probably going to perish it to the bottom of the list of releases from Oldham, I find little or no replay value with the album. With reference to the album title, I would have to say the jams might well be epic, but both the jams and the little ditties are better described as unfortunate.