Category: Bonnie Prince Billy

Tributes and Cover Compilations, Fall 2012
Part 3: multigenre & multi-artist tributes

September 26th, 2012 — 02:04 pm

For those just joining us: we’re in the midst of a multi-feature series on previously-unblogged cover and tribute albums released this year. Previously, we posted explorations of EP-length cover sets and folky all-covers albums from artists generally associated with other genres; today, we take on four of those ubiquitous mixed genre multi-artist tribute albums, with an eye towards their folkier tracks.

Lowe Country: The Songs of Nick Lowe, the newest countryfolk-slash-country rock tribute from Austin-based label Fiesta Red Records, isn’t folk, and it isn’t marketed as such, though the roots and twang crowds have been buzzing about it since notice of the album first appeared at Summer’s beginning. But while a number of the tracks on this fine (and long overdue) tribute to the pivotal English singer-songwriter, musician and producer best known for penning such pub rock and new wave hits as Cruel To Be Kind and (What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace Love and Understanding fall squarely into the country rock camp, the album also includes cuts from well-known countryfolk singer-songwriter troubadours Lori McKenna, Hayes Carll, Caitlin Rose, and Ron Sexsmith – Mckenna and Sexsmith’s tracks are beautifully intimate, and Carll and Rose’s typically twangy – plus several surprising delights from some sparsely-performed up-and-coming bands and solo acts such as Amanda Shires, whose take on Lowe’s I Love The Sound of Breaking Glass shatters both genre lines and my heart all at once.

It’s worth noting, I suppose, that despite lede graf mention of the fundraising nature of the project (proceeds from album sales go to benefit victims of the 2010 Nashville floods and 2011 Texas wildfires), Paste magazine dismisses the album as a languid also-ran that fails to capture either the political urgency or the playfulness of Lowe’s work. But Paste can go to hell: regardless of how twangy or gritty a given track might sound, to this folk-lover’s ears, every one is treated with delicate respect and heartfelt beauty, revealing more to love than just the song, making the album a strong addition to any broad-minded folk-lover’s collection.

Just Tell Me That You Want Me, this year’s new Fleetwood Mac tribute from Starbucks in-house label Hear Music, is decidedly not folk, either – it’s mostly indie pop in the first half, and hazy dance pop in the second, though heavy on the guitar fuzz and synth beats throughout – and although Antony Hegarty’s quivering falsetto take on Landslide is worth a listen, most of the album fails magnificently, thanks to both a tendency towards phoned-in performances in no small part to the song selection, which skips over almost every one of the band’s best Lindsey Buckingham compositions.

But buried towards the back, where it seems decidedly out of place, you’ll find a rich, utterly soul-crushing take on Storms from Matt Sweeney and Bonnie “Prince” Billy that builds and crashes like the waves on the shore. We’re no strangers to folk interpretations of Fleetwood Mac, having featured them in our Covered In Folk series way back in 2009; our love for “Prince” Billy’s neo-folk song deconstructions, which trend towards the ragged and soulful, is well-documented as well, in our May 2011 omnibus double-feature on the new American icon, which features full sets of both his vast canon of coverage and a collection of others taking on his songbook. The combination of the two is as stunning and powerful as one might expect.

The lines of coverage blur a bit when an artist takes on his own canon. But although Chest Fever: A Candian Tribute to the Band, which is due to drop October 2nd from Curve Music, is centered around the voice and selection process of organist, keyboardist and saxophonist Garth Hudson, who is often credited as being the principal architect of the Band’s unique folk-rock sound, this is decidedly not a Band album, or even a greatest hits collection: instead, Hudson merely picked out a selection of his favorite songs to play, and then found a holy host of well-respected countrymen to take on the songs so he could enjoy himself as he played along.

Thanks to this origin, Hudson’s careful selection of fellow Canadian icons and groups as single-take partners for a series of comprehensive recastings is not all folk, but it’s entirely influenced by the acadian rhythms and roots rock of the originals in all cases. And, as the joyous, rolling energy of the performance below demonstrates, his choice of bandmates to bring forth just the right combination of reverence and revitalization to every given take – in this case, Newfoundland-based Celtic folk-rock band Great Big Sea, taking on Band b-side Knockin’ Lost John; in other cases, Bruce Cockburn, Chantal Kreviazuk, Raine Maida, Mary Margaret O’Hara, The Sadies, Blue Rodeo, Cowboy Junkies, and the ever-ubiquitous Neil Young – is nothing short of inspired.

Finally, the newest compilation from indie label Paper Bag Records, which offers full tribute to David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, is flavored throughout with electronic and grungy rock instrumentation, as befits the anthemic rock opera. But we’re used to hearing Ontario trio The Rural Alberta Advantage in indiefolk guise, having featured their more acoustic works in these virtual pages several times previously, and if they appear here wailing over crashing cymbals and heavy metal guitars, there is nonetheless just enough folk rock in the mix to celebrate – a perfect mix of Green Day and Steve Earle. Hard-core folk fans may prefer to skip this one altogether, but Paper Bag Records is unfailingly successful in putting together albums which stand strong from start to finish; those who come for coverage will love the treatment, and the price – an email address – is hard to beat.

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1 comment » | Antony and the Johnsons, Bonnie Prince Billy, Compilations & Tribute Albums, Great Big Sea, Lori McKenna, Ron Sexsmith, Tribute Albums

Covered In Folk: Bonnie “Prince” Billy
(A New American Icon, from Dylan to Danzig, from Joe Pug to Johnny Cash)

May 20th, 2011 — 09:13 pm

An unusual double feature today, combining our two most popular focusing strategies: covers of, and covers by, a folkworld artist with whom the average folkfan is only partially or anecdotally familiar. As with all those who we tout, our feature subject deserves to rise above the constant chatter, to be celebrated for his songwriting and performance. But in this case, the man is so prolific, it seemed appropriate to go for the omnibus approach.

To be fair, though I had long planned to take on the collected coverage of Bonnie “Prince” Billy, I came about this week’s feature backwards, through an incredibly beautiful cover of Hard Life, recently performed by rising star singer-songwriter Joe Pug and fellow indiefolk darling Strand of Oaks, in a set solicited and recorded by uberblogger Heather of I Am Fuel, You Are Friends in a small, private chapel session near her Denver home. It wasn’t the first time I had truly listened to the words and melodies of the songwriter in question – after all, the man has appeared on several indie tributes and cover compilations, and his name is a constant companion in the world of music bloggers. But as with the best covers of any stripe, the sheer beauty of the cover sent me back to the stacks, on the path of rediscovery.

And that way, I found, lies genius.

Bonnie “Prince” Billy – born Will Oldham, aka Palace Brothers, Palace Music, et. al. – is a performer as slippery as his pseudonymic existence, easily misunderstood as self-mocking when, for example, he appears with Zach Galifinakis in a Kanye West video, or professes his love for the infamous R&B artist and accused pedophile R. Kelly.

But in less than two decades of performance and recordings, he’s earned the credibility of his peers through an exceptionally prolific career marked by honest, earthy artistry, and a practically unparalleled devotion to authenticity in performance and song. As noted aptly in a 2009 New Yorker feature article, the result has been a true transfiguration of American music, one in which Bonnie “Prince” Billy… has become, in his own subterranean way, a canonical figure.

Oldham’s work isn’t as accessible as some of his more melodic peers in the indie world. His voice is gruff and broken, his lyrics oft oblique; to steep in his work, whether in collaboration or solo, in full instrumentation or soft, fragile acoustic singer-songwriter folk mode, is to enter a world where emotion trumps precision, and beauty comes – if it comes at all – blackened and tarnished, as a sort of dirty, coarse reflection of the ages.

But filtering other voices through those strained, strangled pipes and a diverse set of twisted, faux-grandiose melodic tendencies wrings new emotional potency from songs which have often been overlooked, or at least not ever looked at so deeply as Oldham manages to – see, for example, his recent recreation of Sufjan Stevens’ All The Trees Of The Field as some sort of great old Crosby, Stills and Nash vehicle, the odd yet aching sadness he brings to Puff The Magic Dragon, the utterly transformative way he channels Steely Dan to take on Springsteen’s Thunder Road, his torn, sparse, broken duet on John Prine’s In Spite of Ourselves, or any of the seven utterly amazing covers on his 2007 EP Ask Forgiveness.

And, conversely, those who have taken on his songbook do so out of respect, and each, in its way, has managed to reveal both the age-old nobility and the sense of modernistic grandeur inherent in the songs, evoking diamonds out of the ether, still tarnished with all the char and soot of the originals.

Today, then, we present a twinned feature of sorts: side A a full-length set of performances and recordings by the man himself, interpreting the songbooks of those he respects; side B a smaller but no less majestic set, with covers of Oldham originals from the likes of Johnny Cash, Calexico, Mark Kozelek, Fanfarlo in rare form, and the inimitable Joe Pug. Hear ‘em and weep – and then head over to Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s predictably inaccessible, oblique online home, to hear, purchase, pursue and explore.

Side A: Bonnie “Prince” Billy Covers:

Side B: Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Covered in Folk:

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46 comments » | Bonnie Prince Billy, Covered in Folk