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Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - Beware

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Artist: Bonnie 'Prince' Billy

Album: Beware

Label: Drag City

Review date: Mar. 16, 2009

Beware is a “big” Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy record, or at least that’s how it was described by Will Oldham in a lengthy New Yorker profile in January. The article itself, however welcome, seemed to come about a decade late; Oldham accrued a canon of work worthy of the liberal rag’s ink long ago. But in the days since Kelefa Sanneh’s story hit the web, it’s become clear that the profile was actually a few months early. That’s because Beware is “big” mostly in terms of the fanfare surrounding it. Oldham mentioned singles, a photo shoot, and press availability in the article, but there’s also a newly unveiled record format (the cryptic “ultraload”) and a tour that would give a Presidential candidate pause (50 cities in three months). As The New Yorker article explains, Oldham intends all of this to prove that record promotion doesn’t really work – at least not for him. I suppose my task here is to help prove him right.

In order to do so, however, it’s important to say a word in support of “the little records” – the recent Lie Down In The Light, but especially 2006’s The Letting Go. Insofar as it’s possible for any Oldham release to get overlooked anymore, these two have been. There’s a light, gentle precision to the tidy country songs on Lie Down that works as a fine counterbalance to the string-laden, salt-bitten ballads on The Letting Go. Due largely to the duets with Faun Fables’ Dawn McCarthy, the latter record is one of the best of Oldham’s career. Beware isn’t such a high point, and in fact – due to the length of that career – there’s a readymade analogy: the record is “big” in the same way that the overstuffed Sings Greatest Palace Music made Days in the Wake feel wonderfully small.

On even his most modest, intimate-sounding efforts, Oldham tends toward large backing casts, and Beware is no exception – from a core group that includes Josh Abrams, Jennifer Hutt, Emmett Kelly and Michael Zerang, to more sporadic contributions from the likes of Rob Mazurek, Azita Youssefi and Jon Langford, it gathers together many of the most talented figures in Chicago’s jazz and rock scenes. But like the Nashville session men on Sings, they too often have the effect of sucking all of the air out of the room. Oldham’s humor is still evident – his call of “I want to be your only friend” on the album opener is met with the response of “Is that scary?” – but the joke is dulled by the choral nature of the reply. There’s a nifty little violin line, the guitar digs in, and it’s easy to appreciate Zerang’s distinctive drumming (as it is throughout), but the effect isn’t fully satisfying; rather than a loose group jam in a Louisville field, the song evokes the recording sessions in Altman’s Nashville – each participant locked inside of a glass-covered booth.

This airlessness affects much of the record – it’s easy to admire the stately interplay of marimba and pedal steel on “You Can’t Hurt Me Now,” the screechy violin and brass-and-handclaps counterpoints on “You Don’t Love Me,” and how the plinking banjo folds into the ragged lead guitar on “I Don’t Belong To Anyone”. Yet it’s hard to feel much of a connection with any of these songs. The record is too even – it doesn’t drift either toward the happy, horny bounce of Ease Down The Road or the plainspoken gravity of I See A Darkness. The melodies are too often forgettable, and there’s an uncharacteristically generic quality to many of the lyrics (the song titles are indicative of this). That said, things are allowed to unravel a bit here and there – particularly as the album nears its close. There’s some welcome boots-to-the-hardwood energy on the flute-accented “I Am Goodbye,” and the brassy, twilight schmaltz of “Without Word, You Have Nothing” is both funny (“Move your hands faster, that’s what your man wants / Keep his filthy mind from frequenting his soiled haunts”) and sweetly earnest.

Ultimately Beware’s designation as a “big” record feels arbitrary – it is polished and competent, but at the same time disappointingly bland. Insofar as the heightened attention gets people to check out any of the last few “little” records they may have missed, it’s useful. But anyone expecting a “big” creative statement – particularly compared to the very fine records Oldham’s released lately – should beware.

By Nathan Hogan

Other Reviews of Bonnie 'Prince' Billy

Sings Greatest Palace Music

Master and Everyone

The Letting Go

Lie Down in the Light

Wolfroy Goes To Town

Now Here’s My Plan

Read More

View all articles by Nathan Hogan

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