Will Oldman and his Bonnie “Prince” Billy alias had been hovering around the outskirts of my consciousness for a while now. There were signs everywhere. “Chris, Check Me Out!- Back Porch/Sunday Morning Alt-Country Satisfaction Guaranteed!” I’m easily pleased and it’s astounding how many musicians manage to plant these kind of signs directly in my line of vision, beckoning for the kind of attention I’m more then willing to give. Sadly, due to the drudging woos of my current employment history, I’ve had to put up some blinders and file away dozens (well, no, make that hundreds, but then, financial security or no, isn’t this always going to be the case- this new music voracity?) of potentially interesting albums into the file marked, “When You Get Your Shit Sorted.”
Until then, there is a barely a trickle. Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s “Master and Everyone” is a brief (34 minutes, ten songs) slice of mellow, country-fried pastoral earthiness. The album’s first track, “The Way” is representative of the rest of the album. Cradled acoustic guitars lovingly (delicately) plucked and intertwined, minimal ornamental keys (heavy on the analogue grit) and gorgeous melodies and harmonies gently carving into the niche of Sunday afternoon melancholy. It’s a simple method with plenty of sway and breeze. On a number of tracks, Marty Slayton harmonizes with Oldman like a Carter sister and the songs are all the better for it. A cello winds through a track like a comely Appalachian lass decked out in a bonnet and on her way to a church picnic with a handful of wildflowers in one hand and a plate of freshly baked biscuits in the other. Well, you can imagine, right? It’s nostalgic for a time that never was, or at least I sure am. The droll, wide open spookiness of “Even if Love,” which ran during the opening credits of “All the Real Girls,was the best thing about that woozy film.
It’s wistful like the best of Nick Drake but it’s overall feel is more Southern georgic then English bucolic. It’s intimate, unpretentious and alive enough to get your toe tapping. The albums last cut, “Hard Life” has the grand feel of something timeless. Its austere lyrics (“It’s a hard life for a man without no wife, babe it’s a hard life god makes you live..”) and the ebullience of Oldman and Slayton’s melodies nicely sums up the overall quality of the album. It’s both rural and urbane without ever pandering to hipster expectations of authenticity. It’s lovely music played lovingly, with enough craft and attention to detail to ensure its very own smoky flavor.
As an aside, “Master and Everyone” was recently reviewed by Ian Penman in last month’s Wire magazine. Penman disliked it. Actually, more then simply disliked, he loathed it with a kind of curdled disgust that I found both disturbing and hilarious. Was the tongue firmly placed in cheek or was Penman really throwing a tantrum, his expectations in tatters? The latter, I fear. But how to get this across to the reader? By attaching the albatross of numerous comparisons to those artist’s whose work Penman (and surely other Wire readers worthy of their rareified/fetishistic musical collections) detests.
So, Penman sinks his teeth in. Oldman sounds like “John Fahey doing an Elliot Smith soundtrack for Dreamworks.” The horror! The album is smooth “like the great pretender, Beck.” Yeah, down with that poser Beck! It’s likely to be a “Mojo ‘Roots Album of the Year” candidate. Yeah, fucking Mojo is so not hip, man! Penman saves the big gun for last though, describing one song as “more James Taylor than Bob Dylan.” So there! Then, exhausted but still frothing, Penman writes, “The hell with him.”
Was it the acoustic guitars, dude? Too Dreamworkish? Too Will Ackerman and not enough Bert Jansch?
It’s hard to argue with somebody’s dislike of a work. We all have different reactions. If Penman listens and thinks the album sounds “embalmed,” well, fair enough, though that’s pretty gross. I don’t, he does and never a twain shall meet. But to heap such derision because the album doesn’t live up to your past experience with an artist (previous albums, Penman writes, were more “searingly confessional without being ickily confessional” and had a certain “x factor” now absent and furthermore, this one isn’t “messy” enough- it’s “perfect to the point of intolerable” and lastly, that beard Oldman’s has on the cover is surely “conceptual” goddamnit) isn’t a review or a critique, it’s a vendetta. So upset is Penman that “Master and Everyone” failed to pander to his entrenched expectations, his displeasure has morphed into a surfeit of disdain and a tantrum of derision. File under “Children’s Section.”