Tag Archives: Americana

Bonny Billy Goes to Town

It’s been a good month in Pittsburgh for fans of off-kilter, unsettling, lo-fi indie Americana. Thanks to the Warhol’s Sound Series, we’ve had a rare visit from Jeff Mangum, who brought his pretty-yet-soul-crushingly-sad sound to the Music Hall.  And this weekend, Louisville’s own Will Oldham will travel up the Ohio River (maybe) to give a concert at the Lecture Hall. It’s an intimate venue for a legendary singer-songwriter, and it’s sure to be a memorable show.

If you aren’t familiar with Oldham, aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy, aka Bonny Billy, aka Palace, aka Palace Music, there are about a million places you can start. The guy is prolific – I’ve long since giving up trying to keep up with his EPs and collaborations.  The LPs, which come about once a year, are typically excellent, and the library has a number of them available for checkout. Just about any of those in the library catalog are worth a listen, particularly, IMHO, “Beware,” “Master and Everyone,” and the live “Summer in the Southeast.”

It’s those albums, and the dozen or so others that we don’t have in our collection, plus who knows how many EPs, that have solidified Oldham’s permanent spot on a lot of listener’s playlists, and for good reason. His music is a strange merger of traditional Appalachian music with very modern confessional lyrics, and he always manages to give his music an edge – through an unexpected “explicit” lyric, a brazen synth sound in a sleepy acoustic number, or just a generally sinister vibe that permeates his otherwise pretty songs — that keeps his albums interesting. There is truly nobody putting out records quite like Oldham’s.

But if you’re rolling your eyes and thinking “geez, another sensitive singer-songwriter who makes quiet boring music?  No thanks!” (which might well be a direct quote from my wife), you might be interested in Oldham’s frequent departures from making these records. I think that anyone would have to admit that a person who covers Bjork, R Kelly, Merle Haggard, and the Misfits on the same record is someone who has diverse interests.

Consider the following five unusual moves for an indie-folk troubadour:

He did a cover album with post-rock legends Tortoise and re-recorded some of his early songs with a band of Nashville session musicians.

Are these “essential” albums? Probably not, but come on! A synth-heavy avant gard cover of Elton John’s Daniel? Check.  A glitzy Nashvegas rendition of “Agnes, Queen of Sorrow?” Sure!  These records are a lot of fun, and the library has both of them!

He made a video with Zack Galifianakas for Kanye West’s Can’t Tell Me Nothing

This one really speaks for itself. He’s the one with facial hair (har har).

He tried his hand at stand-up comedy.

He was reportedly not bad, not great, but who knows but those who were there? And you have to give the guy credit for stretching himself artistically. He has also had comedic roles on Wonder Showzen and Squidbillies, an absurdist, gross-out cartoon that runs really late at night on cable.

He had roles in some critically acclaimed movies.

In fact, he was known as an actor (for his role in Matewan) before he put out records. He has recently starred in a couple of movies (Old Joy, The Guatemalan Handshake) and had smaller roles in a couple (Junebug, Wendy and Lucy).

He has a fragrance.

Why should J Lo fans get all the perfume glory? 

Intrigued yet?

-Dan, who will be missing the event because my toddler doesn’t care what time I go to bed, we’re still getting up at 5:30.

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Goodbye, Babylon

I don’t know how I forgot about the boxed sets on the second floor. I’ve visited the Film and Audio section of the Main Library  about a million times over the years and scoured those CD cabinets countless times. Despite all that, I probably looked a little like St. Paul when I went to the very end of the CD section and saw all of those big boxes of music. It was a revelation!

Goodbye, Babylon

They were kind enough to include cotton in the box for us Yankees.

The box that caught my eye was Dust to Digital’s  big, beautiful Goodbye, Babylon. I first heard about this 6-disc set on a gospel show called Sinner’s Crossroads that I religiously (sorry–couldn’t resist) stream from New Jersey freeform giant WFMU. The show plays mid-century, mostly Southern, gospel music, the kind that had a big influence on R&B, soul, and rock and roll music, to name a few, a genre I came to after learning that many of the greatest soul singers were first gospel singers.

Goodbye, Babylon was touted as a great primer to more obscure gospel sounds, and it seemed to be universally well-reviewed. Alas, it also cost about sixty bucks, so I relegated it to the part of my brain where I keep ideas of what I’ll buy when I become a wealthy celebrity librarian. But then, all of a sudden, there it was, a big pine box packed with cotton (really!) and a lovely booklet.  Hallelujah!

The lineup consists of artists ranging from the very famous (Mahalia Jackson, Flatt and Scruggs) to the famous-to-those-who-listen-to-this-kind-of-music (Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Reverend Gary Davis) to a long list of performers whose work was previously only available (or not) on 78. A large booklet, designed to look like an old hymnal, includes background essays for each song in the collection.

Anyone with an interest in the origins of secular pop music in the U.S. should have a good time recognizing the close harmony, driving rhythms and impassioned vocals that have characterized commercial pop music in the postwar era, here in raw form. If you haven’t listened to many old recordings, it might take a few listens to get accustomed to the sometimes poor sound quality; I’d advise you to think of it as part of the atmosphere and, soon enough, you won’t notice it anymore.

Although I’m tempted to keep this library find close to my chest, lest it become so popular that it’s checked out when I want to revisit it, I feel inspired (perhaps by the fire and brimstone sermons that make up disc 6 of the set) to spread the good news about this wonderful collection of Americana.

Amen!

–Dan

P.S.: If there is a wait for this collection, don’t despair! The Main Library has a great collection of old gospel, including Mahalia Jackson, the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Louvin BrothersRev. Gary Davis, and many other luminaries.

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