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The Marquis de Tren and Bonny Billy

Solemns


[Drag City; 2013]



By ; April 25, 2013 


Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOG

It’s been well over a decade since Get On Jolly was released back at the tail end of 1999. That record, a collaboration between the Marquis de Tren (Mick Turner of Dirty Three fame) and Bonny Billy (Will Oldham), was a somber six song exploration of Oldham’s folk tendencies and Turner’s subtly expressive instrumentation. And while that record felt a bit ramshackle at times, the obvious fun that these two guys were having–despite the EP’s superficially downcast mood–was readily apparent. In what wound up being a long-distance relationship, musically speaking, the development of the songs on Get On Jolly bounced back and forth across the Pacific between Oldham’s home in the states and Turner’s home in Australia. But despite this remote conceptualization, the resulting songs felt as intimate and conversational as anything written by either artist. And then their time was done. 13 years passed. But recently it seemed that Turner and Oldham both felt the need to get their jolly on again, and Solemns is the result, a three song EP inspired by the biblical book of Psalms.

This inspiration should come as no surprise to fans who know that Oldham has never shied away from religious (and occasionally sacrilegious) imagery and ideas in his music and in fact uses them to frame many of his most memorable songs. On Solemns, the biblical allusions are profuse as befits the lyrical influence. And as you can hear on opening tender acoustic plea “Solemn 28,” Oldham and Turner are in a much more direct and zealous mood this time out, with lines like “if you, Lord, refuse to answer me/I may as well give up” and “do not disregard me” clearly aimed at some higher power. The cleverly detailed and erudite wordplay which has always been a facet of Oldham’s work is firmly intact, though he makes less of an effort to hide his intentions behind the words and allows them to come to the forefront making for a more confrontational experience. But it never comes across as aggressive, just more overtly humanist somehow. This is Oldham and Turner at their most inclusive. Also along for the ride is singer and occasional Oldham collaborator Angel Olsen, who provides backing vocals on all three tracks here. Her spare, haunting vocals play the part of a heavenly choir, echoing back and forth behind Oldham’s own trembling voice. On “Solemn 28,” in what appears to be Oldham and Turner’s overarching theme for this EP, Oldham sings “I will glorify you with this song” with an honest and grateful conviction.

That doesn’t mean that he’s above calling upon the Almighty for preventative retribution from time to time. On “Solemn 10,” among repeated requests to “punish them”–“them” being those people whom he considers to be committing evil acts–Oldham turns a shuffling beat, gently picked guitar, and his own condemnatory vocals into a hymn for holy vengeance. And this is as close to a feeling of outright aggression as any of the songs on Solemns reach. But even here, his words have the feeling of warning and portent, of trying to guide and avert. His words of denunciation occasionally act as more of a harsh critique of what people might do as opposed to what they have done—though he does seem pretty pissed at what some people have done.  Closing track “Solemn 119” is probably the most Turner-influenced track of the bunch. Featuring Oldham and Olsen’s voices circling and shadowing each other like adversaries, the song delves deeper into this idea of sought after divine intervention and of heavenly guidance. The deceptively simple interplay between the drums, guitar, and vocals all speak to Turner’s ability to craft exciting and refreshingly original compositions out of sounds that we are all familiar with. The fact that Oldham pulls at the seams of his own voice until it starts to unravel makes this one of his most affecting songs in recent memory.

Despite the rather heady ideologies that Turner and Oldham explore here, Solemns is not complicated. The ideas and emotions behind each song feel casual and naturally drawn out of Oldham and Turner and their backing musicians. The concern and undeniable care that went into these songs stand in sharp contrast to much of the more overtly religious music out there. And I think the difference lies in the fact that these songs feel and sound spiritual as opposed to devoutly religious. Oldham may be using the Bible as his inspiration but his words feel relevant to all people regardless of creed or faith—they feel more universal, more communally applicable. Much in the same way that Turner tries to express the inexpressible through his music, Oldham has always employed his inordinately personal lyrics with a view toward the acceptance of everyday extraordinary things. And in light of recent public tragedies, his ability to still see all of us as decent and worthy of God’s attention is something miraculous in and of itself.


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