Monday, December 5, 2011

Wolfroy Goes To Town With Oldham

Bonnie “Prince" Billy (a.k.a. Palace Brothers a.k.a. Palace Music a.k.a. Will Oldham, which is his real name) has some 16-odd releases in all. But none of them better captures Oldham’s timeless sense of rural Americana like Wolfroy Goes To Town.

Released in October on the Drag City label, the album departs from the bigger, fuller sounds of Oldham’s previous albums. Instead, the Lousiville, Kentucky, native delivers 10 tracks that are careworn, sparse and strangely familiar.

While all the songs were written by Oldham, the Kentucky-recorded album adds in the talents of vocalist Angel Olsen, bassist Danny Kiely, keyboardist (and vocalist) Ben Boye, and drummer Van Campbell. There's also the guitars, mandolin, and backing vocals of long-time Oldham collaborator Emmett Kelly as well as the talents of multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily along for the ride.

Oldham manages to make less with more on Wolfroy Goes To Town.

Oldham could easily go it alone on any album. But here, he was smart to surround himself with a solid crew. And unlike many artists, Oldham proves that he isn't afraid to take one giant step back and let everyone else enjoy the limelight.

This is especially true with Olsen, whose strong voice is a nice contract to Oldham’s sometimes shaky, careworn laments. It's Olsen's vocal solo on Time To Be Clear that is eerie and almost spectral.

At first pass, some people might call Wolfroy Goes To Town a hefty slice of dark Americana. It is, but not without conveying a sense of confidence. These songs are about odd fellows and folks who are victims of their own devices, but that doesn't mean anybody ought to count them down and out.

Most songs on the album are filled with acoustic guitars and bass, allowing the vocals to take center stage in their rightful place. Quail & Dumplings is a solid example, even leaning toward Celtic folk. It's a touching tale of hardship that may be tied to the past but works today.

Even better tracks off the album include Black Captain, which explores a fall from grace. The waltzy No Match has has drawn favorable comparisons to early Johnny Cash and elements of Hank Williams. And There Will Be Spring is mysterious, with a glimpse into man’s mortality.

New Whaling boasts some elegant and understated guitar, and is perhaps the most melodic on the album. And  Cows sparkles with its folksy harmonies. A little more off the charts is New Tibet with its politically inspired lyrics, replete with odd sexual references.

The album is tied together by an underlying theme of a loss of faith. 

The theme strikes at one simple truth about Oldham. He is a prolific singer/songwriter, who is right where he should be as a solemn troubadour out of the rural most corner of your mind. You'll never find anything over the top with him.

He's perfectly comfortable delivering the understated without ever needing to fill every pause with sound. Few can actually create an atmosphere and make it all seem so effortless and natural. It’s subtlety at its very best.

Then again, Oldham is an interesting character. After making his mark with the 1993 single Ohio River Boat Song, originally credited to Palace Brothers (the band's name was inspired by John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row), he followed up with the album There is No-One What Will Take Care Of You.

Throughout his music career, he dabbled in acting, his first ambition. His film work includes John Sayles’ Matewan (1987) as well as small roles in Junebug and Wendy and Lucy, the latter of which starred Michelle Williams.

Wolfroy Goes To Town Warbles With A 7.6 On the Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Bonnie “Prince” Billy will be playing a few shows in the Netherlands, Belgium, and the United Kingdom in late January. Live shows frequently sway back and forth between rock, folk, blues, and country. The last concert in the U.S. (for now) will be Dec. 7 in Chicago. 

You can find Wolfroy Goes To Town on iTunes. Barnes & Noble carries the vinyl release, which always makes Oldham sound other-worldly. Wolfroy Goes To Town is also available on Amazon. A few listens will help you understand why his work begs to be heard, and is hard to forget.
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