1996 - 1998, STREAMING NOW

23/04/18

Image: 1998

Palace Music – Every Mother’s Son – Streaming Now

Every Mother’s Son” is a Lynyrd Skynyrd song.  Brett Ralph had made a Skynard mix tape for Oldham, and for some reason this particular song made an impression.  Oldham changed a lyric in the song from “winning horse” to “winning pig”.  Michael Udris recorded the performance in a dark living room in Providence, Rhode IslandColin Gagon played the piano and Bob Arellano the guitar.  The group also recorded “No More Rides”, a song that Oldham had written for a Sally Timms recording session.  These two recordings were released as a 7” single.  The cover art was an engraving by Diane Radford; a limited edition of the sleeves were letter-pressed by hand by Radford. 

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Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Arise Therefore – Streaming Now

ARISE THEREFORE was the beginning of a new thing.  All of the Palace adventures were about discovery, maybe? And here with ARISE exploration begins.  Will Oldham once again asked Steve Albini to record the songs, this time in Cannon Falls, Minnesota.  It was to be an ensemble of Oldham’s mentor/hero/friends, with Ned Oldham playing bass, and David Grubbs playing piano.  Once again, Britt Walford was invited in but he demurred.  In Walford’s stead, Oldham invited a small dusty electronic box called a Maya-tone to play drums (it belonged to brother Paul Oldham).  And once again, Albini spent significant time pulling apart the tape machine at the studio and bringing it up to snuff.  There was rehearsal/prep built into the process; Ned and Will ran through all of the songs in Birmingham while Grubbs had a cassette of all of the songs with Maya’s beats in place.  A good time was had by all out there in the woods, in the winter.  Gene Booth made the drawing for the cover of the record.  The songs were all Oldham originals except for “You Have Cum in Your Hair and Your Dick is Hanging Out”, which was written by Bryan Rich with OldhamRich had no title for the song, and during the recording sessions Albini told a joke with “You have cum...” as its punchline.

ARISE THEREFORE was released without an over-arching “artist credit”.  It’s necessary to have a recording attributed to an individual or group so that record stores (and now streaming services) have a way to organize their inventory.  All of the records that Will Oldham has overseen prior to and following ARISE have an ‘artist’ attribution attached for the sake of easing the record’s way through the systems and into the ears of listeners.  Though ARISE remains physically unattributed (there is no single artist given credit for the record on the artwork), it has been successively superficially (with a cover sticker) credited to “Palace Music”, then “Will Oldham”, and more recently “Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy”.

At times, Drag City/Oldham/Palace would augment a new release with extra goodies for initial distribution to direct accounts.  A direct account is when a record store buys from the label rather than a distributor.  The catalog price for a store is slightly higher than for a distributor and the store has, ideally, a more intimate relationship with the eventual record-buying audience. Oldham had recorded songs and incidental music for an independent film called THE BROKEN GIANT (directed by Estep Nagy), and a CD of this music was included with the first shipments of ARISE to direct accounts.  Later this release was repackaged and retitled BLACK RICH MUSIC (the original title for the film had been THIS BLACK RICH COUNTRY; and one of the songs was written by Bryan Rich under the nom de guerre Roy Black).

As well, when licensing records to Japan in the 1990’s, it was not uncommon to add bonus tracks or otherwise to augment a release in order to make a record more attractive to Japanese buyers, since it was usually more expensive for Japanese music fans to buy Japanese release than it was for them to purchase imported CDs.  With this in mind, a bonus track was added to the ARISE CD, “Black Rich Tune”.

Fun Fact #1: the Arise design team of Osborn/Oldham/Booth was honored when the title sequence in the Shane Black comedy-thriller KISS KISS BANG BANG paid visual tribute to the ARISE cover.

Fun fact #2: The lead actor in THE BROKEN GIANT was a young Will Arnett.  He plays a conflicted man of God in the film.  At one point in the film, his character makes fire come from the palms of his hands (pictured in the artwork for the CD); at another point, he preaches at length from the Book of Job (text from which is printed on the CD face).  Both were signs of things to come when Arnett embodied, wonderfully, Gob Bluth in the television series ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT.

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Palace Music – Little Blue Eyes – Streaming Now

John Peel, you may know, was a brilliant music curator under the employ of the BBC for many many years.  As part of his duties, he commissioned recording sessions from musicians traveling through London.  On the first Palace Brothers trip through the UK and Europe, they were invited by Peel to record four songs at he BBC’s Maida Vale studios to be broadcast later on Peel’s show.  In 1996, Drag City released two of these four songs on a 7” single, “Little Blue Eyes” and “The Spider’s Dude Was Often There”.  Will Oldham was deeply inspired by cassettes of Peel sessions recorded by Pavement and Royal Trux, and prepared the four songs especially for the occasion. The ensemble was made up of Rian Murphy (drums), David Pajo (electric guitar), Paul Oldham (bass), and Henrique Prince (violin).  At the time, Sasha Jansen was a graphic artist renting office space in the same building as Drag City’s space.  Dan Koretzky was aware that she was of a different ilk than other artists DC had previously worked with and suggested to Oldham that a collaboration might prove interesting.  Hence the distinct visuals of the “Little Blue Eyes” sleeve.

Palace Music - For The Mekons, Et Al - Streaming Now

The go-to venue in Chicago in the mid-1990s was Lounge Ax.  It was there that the first Drag City Invitational occurred, where all active DC artists performed sets over multiple nights; the running order was determined by drawn lot.  It was easily Will Oldham’s favorite venue at the time.  It was decided that a 7” single containing two songs from a 1994 Palace Show would be released, in support of the venue that was now facing threats of having to close doors for permanent.  The band included Charlie Snell (drums), Pooh Johnston (keys), and Jason Stith (bass).  The recording was made by Steve Good.  The songs chosen were “For the Mekons, et al” (the ‘studio’ version of this song is on the compilation HEY DRAG CITY) and “Stable Will”.  The record came in a plain white sleeve and with a paper ID slip included in case a jukebox owner wanted to throw the single onto a machine.

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Palace Music - Lost Blues And Other Songs - Streaming Now

The 1990s were a time of transition in the music business; but then, what decade isn’t?  Vinyl was on its way out and compact discs were embraced by most buyers.  The 7” single already had a limited audience: a potential buyer needed to have access to a store that carried singles; the buyer had to have a functioning record player; the buyer needed the energy and dedication required to perform the act of putting a single onto her record player (possibly having t insert a wide-hole-to-small-hole vinyl adapter into the record or onto the player), changing the speed to 45 rpm, and then flipping the record 3-6 minutes later in order to the B-side.  Many folks were just giving up altogether, going with the flow and neglecting the vinyl format in favor of CDs.  It was with this in mind that Will Oldham and Drag City decided it might be time to assemble most of the Palace music that had been released over the previous years in one compiled album, LOST BLUES AND OTHER SONGS.  Audiences had responded strongly to the material hitherto only available on 7” vinyl records, with “Ohio River Boat Song”, “Horses”, and “West Palm Beach” among the most-loved in the live repertoires of Oldham-assembled ensembles.  It wasn’t an all-inclusive compilation, as it was deemed to be more essential that the record work as a record rather than just as a document or collection.  It ought to reward the listener.  So songs (“Drinking Woman”) were left off, and unreleased material (“Valentine’s Day” and an early recording of “Riding”) were brought in.  The cover featured a big black rectangle that Oldham intended as a mershed Rothko reference.  The font was lifted from Madonna’s BEDTIME STORIES (which contained the Bjork composition “Travelling”, inspiring Oldham’s “(End of) Travelling”).  Oldham dedicated the comp to the Royal Trux and to Paul Greenlaw for their powerful inspiration.  Supplementary artwork was commissioned from the great Steve Keene.  Keene was asked to make full-color and monochromatic paintings that could be used in print ads and posters.  Keene, in exchange for a big box of Drag City records, painted over 50 amazing pieces, all coincidentally executed on (and dated) Oldham’s birthday.

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Will Oldham - Patience - Streaming Now

Bonnie "Prince" Billy - Joya - Streaming Now

It was a twisted road that led to the record called JOYA.  Someone played a sweet trick on Will Oldham and on the Dirty Three: each was told that the other artist had expressed an interest in meeting and collaborating.  It was a nice gambit.  Oldham met Mick Turner in London and they hit it off right away.  Oldham suggested that the Dirty Three meet him in Cotati, California to make a record.  The Dirty Three agreed.  After the (artistic) success of ARISE THEREFOREOldham didn’t want to mess too much with a formula and so he invited Ned Oldham and David Grubbs back for the Cotati session, as well as Tiffany White from the Memphis “Lost Blues” recording session.  At the last minute, the Dirty Three’s Warren Ellis got separated from his passport and couldn’t make the beginning of the session.  That’s when the heavy lifting tends to get done.  Oldham mini-panicked and called in Colin Gagon to bring his accordion skills to the session.  Steve Albini was the recordist.  Once again, as had happened in Hueytown and Cannon Falls, Albini had to expend some serious effort getting the 2” tape machines up to acceptable working order.  Ellis was able to get a new passport in time to arrive during the overdub/mix part of the process.  Overall, there was a lack of an emotional center to the whole affair due to the scheduling chaos, and when Oldham played the finished record for Drag City, back in Chicago, he realized that the record wasn’t something that should be released.  He went back to the studio in North Liberty, Iowa where he had recorded BLACK RICH MUSIC and re-recorded all of the songs from the Cotati sessions, this time alone with a guitar.  It was from this recording that the songs “Patience” and “Take However Long You Want” were pulled for a 7” single release.

Over the following months, the rest of the songs from the Cotati session were worked and reworked.  All was not lost; about half of the recordings ended up on singles and an EP, and friendships were struck between Oldham and Jim White and Mick Turner that would bear fruit in years to come.  The rest of the songs were rebuilt and a further handful of songs came into being in the hope that Oldham could make a full-length record.  Oldham invited David Pajo to Birmingham, Alabama.  The idea was that the two of them would make a record, with Pajo engineering, at Ned Oldham’s house while Ned and his wife were out of town.  Things didn’t click.  Oldham felt like he was forcing the issue and decided to give the whole thing a rest, fooling himself into thinking that he was through with making music altogether.  Dan Koretzky from Drag City suggested that they give the record one more try, with Koretzky and Rian Murphy acting as producers.  Oldham again asked Pajo (drums), Gagon (bass and piano), and Bob Arellano (guitar) to join him at the Chicago Recording Company with the CRC house engineer at the board.  It was exciting to be on those premises; R Kelly had worked extensively there on his R record, and Slint’s SPIDERLAND was also made there. The session was booked last-minute over the 4th of July holiday weekend.  Tracking and mixing were completed in four days.  A good time was had by all.  The front cover of the record features a photo by Bryan Rich of his pet goat “Chevre” in Bujumbura, Burundi.  Oldham visited Rich in Burundi and they ate the goat.  The back cover features a photo by Joe Oldham.  The LP sleeve was plain brown cardboard with the name of the record printed in black; the sleeve was die-cut to reveal the label artwork which was the above-mentioned photographs.  The CDs themselves were gold in color rather than the standard silver (inspired by early entries in Smithsonian-Folkways Music of Indonesia series), and the CD trays were made of a smooth shiny black plastic instead of the standard textured charcoal gray plastic.  The record was named JOYA and given the artist credit “Will Oldham” so that the stores and distributors would be able to find a place to put it.

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Bonnie "Prince" Billy - Little Joya - Streaming Now

There was a song left out of the sessions for JOYA, called “Joya”.  The idea for the title of the song and the record was to pay tribute to the Minutemen’s 7” Ep “Joy” as well as to, well, just JOY, and then to augment both and all with an extra vowel.  After the JOYA recording, Will Oldham and Bob Arellano went to Mexico.  They landed in Monterrey and discovered that there was a soft drink factory there which mainly made and bottled a drink called “Joya”.  So they toured the factory.  They went to cockfights, to bullfights, and to the desert to feast on nature and her cactile offerings.  Upon the return to the USA, Oldham was very sick, struck by some long-dead phantom’s revenge in the form of amoeba or microbe broadcasting evil from the gut outwards.  A session had been booked in Chicago, with Rian Murphy overseeing and Liam Hayes and David Pajo playing.  Oldham was able to make it through the completion of just the one song, “Joya” before fading out all together.  Other songs were begun but left hanging on the line, never to be reclaimed.  To flesh out a CD-only release, Oldham recorded some electronic onanism on a digital sequencer. “Little Joya” became a three-track wonder.

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Bonnie "Prince" Billy - I See A Darkness - Streaming Now

In the wee world of Palace/Oldham doings, a seismic shift occurred in 1998.  The previous years of action and reaction had helped identify, for Will Oldham, what it was to be a worker in song.  There was a tour in Australia, with an ensemble featuring Mick Turner, Liam Hayes, and Jim White.  How was it billed? We don’t know; you’d have to look up fliers or other show info to say.  On the return flight, home to America, Oldham came up with the idea of “being” someone, of embodying, officially, a singer upon whom both audience and creator could project character and intention.  He thought to name the singing thing “Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy”, after R.L.Stevenson’s fictionalized Bonnie Prince Charlie vitamixed with Nat “King” Cole and William “Billy the Kid” Bonny.  He started work immediately, on the plane, on the first three Bonny jammers: “One With the Birds”, “Southside of the World”, and “Banana Blood”.  The songs were songs, with verses and choruses and middle-eights, and were intended to span the chasms between devastation and melodrama, horror and humor, honesty and constructed pretense; as authentic as any vaudevillian or thug crooner ever aspired to be.

Oldham had begun to grasp what it was to be an identified and identifiable recording and performing voice.  Rather than hide under the table, he opted to crawl furiously into the bull-ring and own the newly-created musical being.  There was a burst of singles: “I Am Drinking Again”/“Dreaming My Dreams”(a cover of the song by Ireland’s Cranberries), “Black Dissimulation”/“No Such As What I Want”, “One With the Birds”/“Southside of the World”, and “I Confess”/“Sun Shines Down”(these last two are covers of songs from Kevin Coyne’s BABBLE record, which was later covered in full by the Babblers, a band made up of Ben Boye, Van Campbell, Emmett Kelly, Danny Kiely, Will Oldham and Angel Olsen).  Rather than confuse his community, Oldham struck out with the Anomoanon (Ned Oldham, Jack Carneal, Aram Stith, Jason Stith, Willie McLean) to create an (even more) independent Palace Records.

Paul Oldham had gone to university to study audio engineering, working towards the same recording degree at Indiana University that Todd Brashear and Grant Barger had earned years before.  Paul and Will moved into an old farmhouse in Shelbyville, KY and Paul set up his Rove Studio there. 

The sessions for I SEE A DARKNESS were longer than any previously undertaken by Will.  He blocked out a month to make the record, first doing basic tracking with Pete Townsend (drums) and Paul Oldham (bass).  Lead voice and rhythm guitar were tracked live with bass and drums.  Paul was the engineer.  After basics, Colin Gagon came for a few days and played the piano, and Bob Arellano came for a few days and played lead guitar.  David Pajo played guitar on “Song for the New Breed”, the lyrics for which were written by Dianne Bellino.

The front cover was made by Joanne Oldham.  She had developed a practice of making self-referential symbolic collages, and one in particular resonated with Will as a potential cover for this record.  He asked Joanne to make a new version of the piece, extricating the personal references and leaving only the drawn skull layered over by tissue paper.  Sammy Harkham illustrated the lyric sheets and painted the back cover.  Joe Oldham took the photograph of Will wearing a leather hat.

I SEE A DARKNESS was the beginning of Bonnie Prince Billy.  The credits call the record “a Will Oldham record”.  It’s a singular piece of work masquerading as a collection of songs by an individual recording artist.  After a few years of super-independence, the Palace Records releases were brought back under the Drag City manufacture/distribution umbrella and none was the worse for the journey.