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Brian Harnetty - Silent City

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Artist: Brian Harnetty

Album: Silent City

Label: Atavistic

Review date: Nov. 19, 2009

Last I checked, silent cities don’t exist, but it’s commendable that Brian Harnetty & Will Oldham (billed here as Bonnie Prince Billy) have gone to the trouble of explaining why. They don’t make any sense. Maybe a largely deserted city would be silent, but if it were largely deserted, it’s probably because nobody wants to be there. The few who feel otherwise are adult children from a nearby town who take shrooms, burglarize the shuttered library, and then break into the community college music room and record this album.

Faithful Bonnie "Prince" Billy fans has seen his various live assemblies morph from the achingly beautiful (his recordings for Scottish radio with Harum Scarum; unbelievably sweet and pretty stuff) to a murky half-idea of a band that includes people like Emmett Kelly and Azita Youssef but manages to shuck their contributions in favor of a dimwitted Grateful Dead vibe. Sorry, dude, but "Break Of Day" doesn’t need to be stretched out. It’s a cute little song that sounded good the first time, and it didn’t need a Berkeley Windowpane Dance Mix. Symptomatic of this performance conceptual drift was, at least recently, the inclusion of Kelly’s dirge ensemble Dream Weapon. Droning for twenty minutes doesn’t require anyone’s approval or critique: it either drones or it doesn’t. They did have a dude who bleated like a goat a few times, which succeeded, whether or not it were the mission, in heightening peoples’ anxiousness for Oldham to come on stage and for these dirty hippies to leave it.

Here it doesn’t. Oldham sings over what would presumably be Harnetty’s contribution, a loose roomful of pianos, drums, a harmonium (it’s not genius anymore to play a harmonium you found in a dumpster) and collaborators. At this album’s best, Oldham does, for moments, recapture the fractured grace of his own improvisational work from his 2006 release The Letting Go (see the last untitled track for an example) and offers a very musical version of weeping regret over Harnetty’s melancholy projection, some of which borders on pretty itself. In fact, Harnetty’s sad, shuffling grooves, enhanced with electric piano and a smart low end, could have been a smaller volume of music unto itself, recalling some of the more poignant moments of Dude Plays Saxophone’s Greatest Hits 84-87 or The Frames’ For The Birds.

Short of supplemental data, there’s little to justify the inclusion of what sounds like "found audio," a few old timey clips of music and a taped conversation or two, all of which sounds like it came from hill country. Songs and concern might have done a better job of creating a sense of time and place rather than the false contextualization provided by tapes looted from a thrift store footlocker.

By Andy Freivogel

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