Tag Archives: indie rock

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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Speak Softly and Carry a Guitar: The Bitch Magnet Reissues

The 1970s and 80s were full of loud rock and metal bands with larger-than-life personalities.  Or to put it more bluntly, let’s say image-conscious bands full of egomaniacs, on stage with oversize drum sets, walls of amplifiers, and elaborate light and stage shows.  There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that.  I love Van Halen, for instance.

But what was special about the band Bitch Magnet in the mid-to-late-80s is that they could totally rock loudly with bombast and complexity but had really unassuming personalities as people and musicians.  They met at Oberlin College.  The two front men, guitarist Jon Fine and bassist Sooyoung Park, were both bespectacled nerds in casual clothes.  The band name was surely ironic.  Sooyoung’s vocals were more spoken than sung.  But over the stunningly great drumming of Orestes Morfin was a wonderful wash of guitar volume.

Fine wrote last year in an article for The Atlantic about his rock-induced hearing loss and stated:

Extreme volume is nerd-macho. I couldn’t bench-press 250 pounds—actually, I couldn’t bench-press half of 250 pounds—but my band was much louder than yours.

I implore you to not follow in Fine’s footsteps and to please wear earplugs.  But I recommend his music.

Amongst indie rock fans, Bitch Magnet and Slint also were known for having some songs using the soft-loud formula: usually very restrained verses with almost mumbled or whispered vocals and then choruses where the guitarist hits the distortion pedal and everything gets really loud.  Of course, soon after, this formula was turned into one of the most successful songs of all time by Nirvana with “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Bands in Pittsburgh’s 90s indie rock scene such as Hurl and Don Caballero were clearly influenced by Bitch Magnet.  In fact, Don Caballero and Battles guitarist Ian Williams is quoted on the back cover of last year’s reissue of all three Bitch Magnet albums.  The reissues are long overdue and contain extras: unreleased songs, old photos, flyers, etc.  But perhaps the best part about a comprehensive reissue is that you can experience a band freshly out of context and in reverse chronological order.  I’d advise starting with Ben Hur, the majestic final album and working backwards through Umber before listening to the inchoate Star Booty.  Enjoy!

— Tim

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