I thought it best to start at the genesis of BPB through the various guises and before BPB became the nom de plume de jour. I would find it impossible to tease out the 10 best albums – that can wait for another day. There’s a whole series in looking just at Will Oldham, top ten collaborations, top ten cover version of his own songs, top ten cover versions, top ten tracks from the BPB Mixtapes. The possibilities are legion. For this starter, I will concentrate on the Palace period, Palace Brothers, Palace Music, Palace. ‘There Is No-one What Will Take Care of You’, ‘Days in the Wake’, ‘Viva Last Blues’, ‘Arise Therefore’, ‘Lost Blues and Other Songs’ and any singles or EPs from the period.
These are records that nudged me further towards americana, they are my idea of americana, they come from the same place (musically) that I did, they provided that connection, the safety net so I could let go and discover new things. It is incredibly difficult to whittle this down to ten, I could try the top ten tracks on ‘There Is No-one What Will Take Care of You’ but then I would have to leave two out. Listening back to these records has only reinforced my belief that Will Oldham is one of the greatest forces in contemporary music. His constant evolution, the search for new things, the willingness to collaborate all mean that he is as relevant today as he was when these records first appeared in the early 1990’s. Let us get started before I change my mind again.
Number 10: Palace Brothers ‘Idle Hands are the Devil’s Playthings’ from ‘There Is No-one What Will Take Care of You‘ (1993)
This is Oldham at his most skeletal, just a few instruments for company and a voice that wavers all over the register. The knocking percussion, a banjo skittering around like a spider, something is shaken, you can imagine sunlight streaming through the slats of a barn illuminating dust motes. It is simple and short, profound and disposable. A precursor to much of the enigmatic output that followed.
Number 9: Palace Brothers ‘O Lord Are You In Need’ from ‘There Is No-one What Will Take Care of You‘ (1993)
This is country music twisted like a wet rag, wringing out all of the sentiment and the accompaniments, leaving the essence. There is some of the desolation and desperation from Slint (you will know that the backing on this album was provided by mostly Slint alumnus). It ticks along like an old man with a limp dragging himself to the liquor store (more poetic than the off-license), the guitar solo is a model of economy a few bent notes, the rhythm a languid strum. And what do you know, it is compelling creating a vignette that crams in all the detail required.
Number 8: Palace Brothers ‘King Me’ from ‘There Is No-one What Will Take Care of You‘ (1993)
An early example of the importance of space in BPB songs, the beat before the chorus, stops time. The guitars are somewhere between menacing and glowering, the cymbals washing across the song, when Oldham launches into the sermon-like passage it could be ‘Night of the Hunter’ and yet it all resolves so gently.
Number 7: Palace Brothers ‘You Will Miss Me When I Burn’ from ‘Days in the Wake‘ (1994)
This sounds so gentle when compared with the harshness of ‘There Is No-one What Will Take Care of You‘, with just his voice and acoustic guitar it is closer to traditional singer-songwriter fare. It is emblematic of the rest of his career, a move up in the level of confidence in the songwriting and the performance. “When you have no-one, no-one can hurt you” at the time these lyrics meant so much to me, when my behaviour was to push people away so I couldn’t be rejected. I can still feel these feelings deep inside of me and this allows everything to surface.
Number 6: Palace Brothers ‘I am a Cinematographer’ from ‘Days in the Wake‘ (1994)
Oldham’s voice is a thing of real beauty, playful (like the lyrics) naive and also full of wisdom, even at this young it sounded like it had been around the world several times and seen everything and was still open to new experiences. This song has a levity mostly full of optimism and hope until the last few bars.
Number 5: Palace Music ‘Viva Ultra’ from ‘Viva Last Blues‘ (1995)
An excursion into darker territory, both musically and lyrically, the drums, bass and keys set up a low-end murk, like an early morning fog. On top of this, the guitars sometimes emerge and the vocals (with added harmony) move over the top of this. Oldham sounds in control here like this is one of the personas that he can use. The song is almost inconsequential but the way that it progresses somehow has a profundity that it does not deserve. And I think this is the thing about Oldham, he has the capacity to insinuate meaning without trying to pursue a message, in the same way the songs without trying to have a timelessness.
Number 4: Palace Music ‘New Partner’ from ‘Viva Last Blues’ (1995)
This shows how Oldham has a magpie mind for writing songs, incorporating phrases or motifs from other songs and subsuming them into the song to make it his own. The refrain ‘You were always on my mind’ is surely familiar but the melody is changed, and it isn’t the only refrain. By now Oldham’s vocals have improved, there is more control, less likely to slip out of the key, and with Albini’s trademark lack of production letting the song breathe the darts of guitar and the swaddling organ mark this out as one of his great early songs. Stick around for the next track ‘Cat’s Blues’ and you can really hear him open his throat. The live version below includes backing vocals from Angel Olsen and Emmett Kelly on guitar.
Number 3: Palace Music ‘Horses’ from ‘Lost Blues and Other Songs’ (1997)
This song is loose, it sounds like it is an aimless stroll, the music just a gentle lope, backing vocals like an extended yawn. Gradually though it catches fire and though the guitar solo is fierce it is also somehow laid back. The lyrics take us on a journey adding to that sense of movement, these horses aren’t bucking broncos more like packhorses freed of their usual burdens. It is a song that inveigles its way into your consciousness by first taking up residence in your subconscious. The guitar solo that takes up the final minute is just a bonus by then I am already fully invested.
Number 2: Palace Music ‘West Palm Beach’ from ‘Lost Blues and Other Songs’ (1997)
If ‘Horses’ is loose then this really is Oldham kicking his flip flops off and feeling the sand between his toes. The guitars meander companionably alongside the vocals, the scenery is the beach, there is domesticity with grandma making dinner, there is a rush of words, it feels more like a story with music than a song. The instrumental break is a cosy hammock the chiming guitar guyed by ropes of synth. It is Oldham at his most engaging full of bonhomie, if the song were a person it would be my best friend. See also ‘Gulf Shores’.
Number 1: Palace Music ‘Ohio River Boat Song’ from ‘Lost Blues and Other Songs‘ (1997)
One of my all-time favourite performances, the first time I heard it it made perfect sense. As noted it gave me the possibility to extend the type of music that I listened to. Everything about it was fantastic, the vocal performance is pitched just right, the instrumentation spoke a vernacular I could understand, the guitars were electric and at times gentle, and at others, a huge paddle steamer churning up the melody of the song, the drums were hit and stayed hit. It is folk music but not folk music as I had understood it. Coming at this from the Slint angle I had no idea it was a traditional song. They seem to be reaching for something that is just beyond their grasp and the result is a glorious ripping of the folk and hardcore music fabric. Nearly thirty years later it still sounds fresh and full of possibility.
I’ve missed out so many good songs, ‘(End of) Travelling‘, ‘Work Hard/Play Hard‘, ‘More Brother Rides‘ I could go on and on. Going back to these records that have been part of my life for over twenty-five years finds them not having diminished at all. They have a timelessness about them, I expect in another twenty-five years I’ll look back again and not wonder about the type of person I was that listened to that shit. In a way these records are part of a shift to adulthood, they will endure.