Palace Music's 'Viva Last Blues'
From the archives: Will Oldham's third record as Palace Music
(This review originally appeared in Issue 7, Spring 1996.)
The question is, how far are you willing to climb to reach a pure source? Do you want the water as it exits from a fissure in the rocks? Or is a filtered five gallon bottle delivered to your back door good enough for you?
Which are you more comfortable with? PJ Harvey? Or Alanis Morissette? Fresh or packaged? What you’ll get here is drawn straight from the pure stream of Will Oldham’s cosmic ether. Oldham is a 26-year-old eccentric who is Palace Music or Palace Brothers or whatever he’s calling himself at this moment.
Labeling Oldham “enigmatic” is a grand understatement. Calling the music he’s making Appalachian/folk/punk unfairly pigeonholes something which is far more complex, and far more difficult to listen to the first few times you try.
Oldham sings in a sometimes piercing, whining drawl, his voice frequently cracking, his phrasing interrupted by what sound like poorly timed breaths or breaks in concentration. Sometimes phrases simply end in mid thought. His tone will remind you somewhat of The Incredible String Band’s Robin Williamson, or what Loudon Wainwright III might have sounded like if he was a victim of inbreeding, or if you want to really get esoteric, Peter Rowan of the ‘60s band Earth Opera.
The Kentucky-based musician and former actor writes simple, folky, slow moving rock tunes not unlike some of Neil Young’s, which on this album are mostly played by a small, seemingly low powered, predominantly acoustic combo: drums, bass, piano, and a couple of guitars.
What he’s singing about is open to question specifically, but generally, the fragmented phrases deal with loneliness, abandonment, and the mundane daily comings and goings of life. Oldham’s observations are generated from a very simple, very pure place where connectivity takes a back seat to short term image functionality. He casts out the pieces. Some assembly is required.
“And where are my friends? And where is my family, they’ve all gone away though it’s I who have left them,” Oldham sings on one mournful song of confinement, desolation and death, which makes Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” sound like a celebration.
Oldham’s preoccupations are not all morbid or downcast. He writes semi-anthems like “Work Hard/Play Hard” and tender, melodic ballads like “New Partner” which in more conventional hands could sound uplifting and commercial. You can hear Joan Baez singing the rolling, tender melody of “We All, Us Three, Will Ride,” which he sings accompanied by solo acoustic guitar.
If you’ve ever heard Jonathan Richman’s “Hospital,” you’ll have a very good feel for what Oldham is about. In fact, if you’re a Richman fan—a guy who still wears his childlike innocence comfortably on his well creased face—you’ll greet Oldham like a long lost friend.
Part of the charm of this record is Oldham’s musical support group which plays with deceptive simplicity, leaving a great deal of empty space between notes. What sounds threadbare upon first listen is instead, daringly unadorned and boldly direct. And in Steve Albini’s absolutely brilliant recording, you will hear every carefully considered lick, every deftly placed note, laid out in three-dimensional space.
If the goal of honest recorded musical communication is the sound of a band playing live in a space, unencumbered by studio trickery, then this is about as direct and truthful an electronic recreation of a rock ensemble as you’re likely to hear. The rear and center drum sound Albini offers up bristles with dynamic energy: cymbals ring, the snare crackles. Acoustic guitars shimmer and the electric ones glow. Oldham sings straight into the mic and Albini delivers it to you nonstop. Best of all, the spatial presentation puts each instrument in focus, layered in three dimensions with the sound of the room, excited by the noise, washing over the whole picture. A great job!
The simplicity and seeming sloppiness of this record—especially Oldham’s weary delivery—may annoy you on first or second listen, but once you adjust your sonic sights, the honest, primitive pleasures come shining through.
If a song like “New Partner” doesn't charm you, time to drop on Freezone and lift off brain corns. Start with side two and you’ll be a fan in no time. There are two other full length LPs in the Oldham discography and many singles. A new album is also about to be released.