I Just Never Could Quite Tell You No

So there I am, driving around in the Florida heat in a rental car listening to some country music station (I don’t know which, K-ROQ or Q-UIM or somesuch), when on comes a familiar song. Well, familiar in one sense; it was a version of a Bonnie “Prince” Billy cover1. I’d never hear the original version of “Just To See You Smile” off somewhat obscure EP “More Revery”, but I’d loved the cover and chucked it on mix CD’s left, right and center, back in those heady pre-blogging days.

Bonnie Billy’s version is all broken, tentative, full of heartache, his voice cracking under the memory of telling the sad tale:

The original, by wholly-unknown-in-the-UK-star Tim McGraw2, is on the surface a more chirpy affair, all banjos and pedal/lap steels bouncing away with that marvellous Nashville sheen, but that old familiar tale still gets rammed home with a tear in ol’ Tim’s eye.

You can’t beat lyrics, or a tune like this, can you? Either way the song is performed, the sheer quality just shines through. I love both versions, though the cover is always going to have a special place in my heart that the original won’t ever displace.

MP3: Just To See You Smile by Bonnie Billy

1 Ok, fact fans, really it’s by Bonnie Billy. No idea why the “More Revery” covers EP misses out the “Prince” bit. Any ideas?

2 Fact Fans No. 2; “Just To See You Smile” was written by Mark Nesler and Tony Martin. So there.

Buy Bonnie Billy’s “More Revery” EP here (note: not cheap) and Tim McGraw’s Greatest Hits (CD) here

I Am A Tall Tree

Apropos of nothing in particular, I have Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s cover of “The World’s Greatest” by R White Kelly floating round my addled mind.

Restrain Yourselves, Ladies

And if it’s up to me, it’ll be floating round yours too soon.

In other news, this review is so very, very wrong.

MP3: The World’s Greatest by Bonnie “Prince” Billy

Buy “Ask Forgiveness” (CD)

Don’t Need No Valentines

Today is a special day for those romantics amongst us. Or those who like bitter-sweet love songs, in which the usual tropes of love songs get turned on their head. Miserable gits who like miserable songs, in other words.

Josh Rouse’s “Sweetie” is one of his beautifully sung, gorgeously composed numbers that he seems able to turn out in his sleep. Seriously, does anyone have such a gift of picking out a tune as Josh? His tender voice sings plaintively over strummed acoustic guitar during the chorus, with the last line spelling out the song’s twisted romance:

“We’ll sleep on roof tops\We’ll ride on bicycles\Maybe we’ll get married\Don’t you want to, sweetie?”

As for the middle eight (“Won’t you sing with me…”), *swoons*. I wish I could write like this man.

Richard Hawley loves his bittersweet love songs too. He’s made his musical career out of them. And you know what? He’s damned good at it too. With a beautiful baritone that wouldn’t be out of place crooning away in the 1920’s, allied with guitar skills that would make Duane Eddy blush, he sings tales of lost love, fallen love, and all the myriad ways that love just goes wrong, of which “Valentine” (unsurprisingly) is one of his finest:

“Don’t need no valentines, no no\Don’t need no roses\Cos they just take me back in time, no no\Now you’re not here anymore”

If your heart doesn’t soar at the second chorus’s rising vocal line, you truly have no heart. Seeing him perform this live at the Royal Albert Hall was one of the highlights of my gig-going career. Whilst he might be a great example of the maxim that there’s nothing new under the sun, he shows you can still do something better than what’s come before with inspiration, big bags of talent, and hard work. Oh, and a great voice.1

And delving deeper into the well of melancholy, here’s that cheery chappie Will Oldham in full Palace Music garb, singing about Valentine’s Day. You just know it’s not going to be an easy ride.

“It’s Valentine’s day\And I’m catatonic”

What a marvellously twisted soul he is.

Happy Valentine’s.

MP3: Sweetie by Josh Rouse

MP3: Valentine by Richard Hawley

MP3: Valentine’s Day by Palace Music

1 Speaking of which, his forum here is an absolute marvel. It’s been running for years and Richard himself is the main man on the site, chatting with fans about anything and everything. If only more musicians would talk to their audience like this…

Buy Josh Rouse’s “Country Mouse City House” (CD/MP3)

Buy Richard Hawley’s “Lady’s Bridge” (CD/MP3)

Buy Palace Music “Lost Blues & Other Songs” (CD)

(You know, you really want to go and buy all three of these. All are marvellous)

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Songs Of 2009 (Part Two)

I didn’t originally intend this to be a two-parter, but when I got to twelve songs with the distinct impression that I’d forgotten a bunch, I thought I’d be safe and do this in two sections. That way I can bung stuff in at the end that I forgot first time round. Part one is over here.

Bonnie “Prince” Billy – I Am Goodbye

Just about the only good song from his “Beware” album. A rollicking stompalong, with more than a touch of wit and humour, with a great video thrown in. If only the album had been half as good.

MP3: I Am Goodbye by Bonnie “Prince” Billy

Buy “Beware” (CD)

Phoenix – 1901

A friend asked me the other night: “So what do you listen to when you need cheering up?”. This was the first song that popped into my head and on reflection, I can’t think of many better.

MP3: 1901 by Phoenix

Buy “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” (CD/MP3)

M Ward – Hold Time

The only song from the album from which it stems that I still listen to, filed firmly alongside Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s latest. Funny that the song from a man whose guitar playing skills are almost unparalleled, has pretty much no guitar on. Who’da thunk it?

MP3: Hold Time by M. Ward

Buy “Hold Time” (CD/MP3)

Yo La Tengo – I’m On My Way

Ok, this album just didn’t quite sneak into my albums of the year, but it probably should have. Isn’t hindsight wonderful? It was either this or “Avalon, Or Someone Very Similar”. But this just pips it by being just gorgeously laid-back.

MP3: I’m On My Way by Yo La Tengo

Buy “Popular Songs” (CD/MP3)

Bloggy Tracks

Already posted during the year, these are bands that I hope to hear much more of in 2010.

Color Radio – Newest News

A great song from a pretty damn good EP. Wistful Americana, in a very good way.

MP3: Newest News by Color Radio

Mixtapes and Cellmates – Soon

Keeps popping into my head at inopportune moments, which is always the sign of a great record. Overwrought, dramatic Scandinavian indie-rock, and fantastic.

MP3: Soon by Mixtapes and Cellmates

Anyway, that’s it for this year. Thanks for visiting, reading, listening, emailing and commenting, and hope you have a fantastic 2010.

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Albums Of The Decade (Part One)

No White Stripes, no Radiohead, no Flaming Lips, no The Streets or Burial or many other great bands. All those bands, and many others, made records with some great songs on (damn, Flaming Lips made the best song of the decade). These are all albums that I still play, still love, and still listen to all the way through. Now, I haven’t gone crazy in the descriptions because I know I’ll get to all of these artists as part of my Pitchfork 500 stint, so it’s 100 words or less. Long-time readers will know this is very, very hard for me to do!

Oh, and there’s hardly anything from 2009. I need time and distance for this, you know.

Dongs Of Sevotion

Smog – Dongs Of Sevotion (2000)

Your one-stop shop for mordant observations on the misery of humanity, shot through with enough wit (“Dress Sexy At My Funeral”) to keep you coming back, again and again and again. I listened to this for much of 2000, and adore it still.

MP3: Dress Sexy At My Funeral by Smog

Buy “Dongs of Sevotion” (CD)

Levez Vos Skinny Fists Comme Antennas to Heaven!

Godspeed You Black Emperor! – Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven (2000)

That slow, dreadful build up, that paroxym of noise. They’d never reached peaks like this before, and they, and Post-Rock, never did again.

MP3: Antennas To Heaven… by Godspeed You Black Emperor!

Buy “Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven” (CD/MP3)

The Kingsbury Manx – The Kingsbury Manx (2000)

The sound of autumn, distilled into some wonderful songs. Soundtrack to many happy moments, staring wistfully at the rain through the window of a warm room. If doing that makes you happy, this record will make you happy.

MP3: Pageant Square by Kingsbury Manx

Buy “The Kingsbury Manx” (CD)

Great Cover, This

Lambchop – Nixon/Is A Woman (2000/2002)

Two albums? Yes. One is a lush, rich record, with big statement songs. The next album is stripped down, often with just and acoustic and minimal accompaniment. Both are wonderful and there’s nothing to choose between them.

Great Lyric: “This learning not to demonstrate your asinine and callous traits\It’ll take some practice”. I love that line.

MP3: Grumpus by Lambchop

Buy “Nixon” (CD/MP3)

Buy “Is a Woman” (CD)

Another Great Cover

Scary Man!  Scary Beard!

Bonnie Prince Billy – Ease Down the Road/Master and Everyone (2001/2003)

Two albums? Yes. One is a lush, rich record, with big statement songs. The next album is stripped down, often with just and acoustic and minimal accompaniment. Both are wonderful and there’s nothing to choose between them.

MP3: Wolf Among Wolves by Bonnie “Prince” Billy

Buy “Ease Down the Road” (CD)

Buy “Master and Everyone” (CD)

This Cover Scares Me More Than Bonnie Prince Billy

Jim O’Rourke – Insignificance (2001)

A few months ago I realised I’d not copied this onto my new iPhone (which is constantly full). When I got home the first thing I did was put on “All Downhill From Here”. For a bitter, twisted, hateful song about how much Jim hates people, and the world, it sure is an uplifting song. The best produced album of the decade.

MP3: All Downhill From Here by Jim O’Rourke

Albums Of The Decade (Part Two)

Albums Of The Decade (Part Three)

Albums Of The Decade (Part Four)

Albums Of The Decade (Part Five)

Albums Of The Decade (Part Six)

Buy “Insignificance” (CD)

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Review – Beware by Bonnie “Prince” Billy

Will Oldham is an odd fellow. From his innumerable monikers, his beard, to his habit of apparently releasing an album every few months, he is on a one-man crusade to corner the “rather eccentric country-tinged singer-songwriter” market. Maybe he’s seen the duller likes of Bon Iver and Ray Lamontagne come along and steal his thunder, and he’s just not happy about it. Or anything, for that matter.

Following on from last year’s “Is This The Sea?” and “Lie Down In The Light” comes “Beware”. The quality of his albums has taken something of a hit since “Bonnie Prince Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music” back in 2004. This was not well received, causing something of a storm back in the day, and prompted a seriously negative review in Pitchfork, amongst others. The criticism was largely thanks to reinterpretation of his own work as Palace Brothers/Music/Records, as pure Nashville Country rather than the cracked alt-Country/Americana everyone had kind of got used to. Now, I rather liked it; or some of it, at least. The versions of “West Palm Beach” and “New Partner” really shone, were better than their original lo-fi recordings, and as a whole I thought it worked nicely. But many felt he’d taken the piss and wrecked his own mystique.

So, since that album there’s been “The Letting Go” and “Lie Down In The Light”, both of which were disappointing, plus rather a lot of collaborations, of which “Superwolf” was ok, and the rest less than essential. Can he make a return to form with his new album, knuckling down and finally returning to the excellence of, well, much of his work from 1995 to “Master And Everyone”?

Listening to “Beware” I was at first disappointed, then a little buoyed (those darn glockenspiel!), then disappointed again.  Look, I know I’ve already bummed out M Ward’s Hold Time, but this is turning out to be a bit of a poor year for some of the old stalwarts.  Where to begin?  Well, first of all, for all the swinging country vibe, it just doesn’t catch in the brain.  Will Oldham has always managed to pen tunes, that for whatever odd reason, stick in the head.  Not quite earworms, exactly, but tunes that dance just on the edge of conciousness, all day long, until you just have to listen to them again and again.  Subliminal earworms, if you like.  But this?   Nothing.  I pretty much forgot most of the songs the instant they stopped playing.

Is this just not having had enough time to listen properly, and let those tunes seep into my head? Possibly. But neither of his last two albums succeeded in doing that, and I’m not sure this one will either. It’s not all bad, though, don’t get me wrong. The single “I Am Goodbye” is carried along jauntily by all manner of countrified accoutrements – pedal steel, jangly Telecaster, flutes, fiddle. And loving the beard:

“Death Final” is a beautiful, fiddle-drenched ballad. Well, I say it’s a ballad, I get the feeling he’s being Bad Will again. “You Don’t Love Me” shows his wicked wit again, saying how his paramour “loves the way my stomach jiggles” and how “my kiss rates as a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10”.

But the album has the feel of a man who’s running out of ideas, and is trying to make up for them by piling on instrument after instrument hoping no-one will notice the shallowness underneath. I really want to like this album more, but at the moment it’s just not doing it for me.

Funnily enough, I was thinking of Smog/Bill Callahan whilst listening to “Beware”. Bill came to prominence at around the same time as Billy, and whilst their music is generally quite different, it comes from the same dark place, and with similar influences, from old country and folk, seen through the prism of The Velvet Underground’s more narcotic numbers. Now, Bill had a similar downturn, with albums like “Rain On Lens”, but he pulled himself out of it, partly thanks to, well, cheering up a bit (and the lissom charms of Joanna Newsom can’t have hurt, either¹). His last two albums have featured a few songs which are up there with his finest, like “From The Rivers To The Oceans” and “Rock Bottom Riser”. Wonder if Billy C could take Willy O out for a beer, watch some Nascar, so one ol’ dog can show another some new tricks.

¹ Speaking of which, if you were at the Homefires festival at the Conway Hall back in 2004, or 2005, when both were on the bill, were they seeing each other then?  We have fond memories of her heckling him in the most elven, delicate way, by yelling “YOU RAWK!” very loudly in her best Valley girl voice.  Answers on a postcard, please.