Ned Oldham's musical journey has been both at one and in parallel with his more famous brother Will who is best known for his early career Palace incarnations and his more recent Bonnie "Prince" Billy moniker. Will utilized his brother's skills on his breakthrough albums - Palace's Viva Last Blues and Arise, Therefore - where Ned's guitar work served to ground Will's deconstructionist tendencies during this critical period. From that point, Ned went on to form the Anomoanan which released several fine albums.
There will always be an immediate and logical connection between Ned and Will's music. The differences lie in form. Whereas Will often seems like an Appalachian Bob Dylan in the way that he will try all kinds of styles, Ned favors a rooted approach. The Anomoanan could sound like the Band sometimes or a greasy southern bar band at other times, but it always seemed to focus around Ned's clear understanding of how Appalachian music from the Oldham's Kentucky home lies at the foundation of a large chunk of American music.
A while back, Ned left his Kentucky home to start the Anomoanan in Baltimore, and now he has moved to Charlottesville, VA for his next musical adventure - Old Calf. For all who have followed Ned's music up to now, it is fine and worthy progression. Borrow A Horse completes a circle for the Oldham family by fully acknowledging the British Isle folk music underpinnings of American music traditions. Old Calf sounds like a modern version of Fairport Convention with an American spin.
Ned has always loved to bring old traditions into modern settings. Many of the Anomoanan's album had songs built off the lyrics from poetry by Mother Goose and Robert Louis Stevenson showing Ned's deep connection to British folklore as nothing new. He's been effectively mining these traditions for many years. What sets Borrow A Horse apart is that the music is more rooted in traditional British folk sounds which allows Oldham to show its deeper connection to American country and bluegrass.
While many people called Fairport Convention a British version of the Byrds, Old Calf combines sides of the Atlantic. The band seamlessly presents straight British folks sounds ("I Saw A Peacock With A Fiery Tail" "When I Was Taken") alongside down home American old-time country ("Stool-Ball" "There Are Men In The Village Of Erith"). Old Calf also throws in "Do Not Play With The Gypsies" which sounds like a Flying Burrito Brothers lost outtake.
With Old Calf, Ned Oldham might have finally found himself a permanent musical home. The territory he and his bandmates are mining here is a rich and deep well. Oldham shows how knowledge and experience, often qualities not properly admired in the world of rock and roll, still are necessary and important in making great music.
While Ned Oldham may musically have a more defined form than his brother Will, he shows just as much adventurousness in his approach and spirit. The ability of Borrow A Horse to fuse styles while keeping a strong sense of artistic continuity merits high praise.
It will be hard to imagine many better records released this year.
- Jim Markel