Kentuckian Will Oldham remains a fearless and prolific southern artist. Most will see the release of Wolfroy Goes To Town as the latest fine release amongst the over 50 LPs, EPs, and collarboration recordings Oldham has released in his nearly 20 year musical career. Wolfroy is a fine record for certain so that assessment certainly fits, but it is also an important piece to the puzzle of the artist known as Bonnie "Prince" Billy aka Will Oldham.
Wolfroy Goes To Town continues Oldham's recent journey as he works again with guitarist Emmett Kelly of the Cairo Group. In a recent Pitchfork interview, Oldham explains how his musical bond with Kelly helped Wolfroy came together:
Well, [guitarist] Emmett Kelly and I have worked together now for almost six years now, starting with The Letting Go, and a lot has happened in that time. At one point we made the Beware record together in Chicago. We made it in a proper recording studio and lots of folks were involved with it. But it was almost a denial of a lot of the things that I viewed as progress in the previous record, Lie Down in the Light. And though I truly love Beware, I wasn't sure why I went so far in in a direction that's opposed to my nature in terms of making a record. I like the result, but it's not sustainable, to use a catchword of the day.
Realizing that Beware had lost a sense of excitement and immediacy, Oldham stripped things back to only him and Kelly and began to record and release a series of EPs and collaboration LPs.
So Emmett and [violinist] Cheyenne Mize and I went to this little room I have in this little house in Louisville and made the Chijimi EP. To me, that was the absolute in terms of how recording should be done. There were just three of us, no recording engineer. And it was done very quickly, so the energy of the record is based on our communication with each other and our chemistry, which is why I like records where the songwriting is done before the session.... Then Emmett and I returned to that room to make The Wonder Show of the World and in some ways pared it down even more. Most of the time it was just he and I in the room, though Shahzad Ismaily came and played bass while we tracked the basic parts of the songs. I wanted to carry forward with this magical room.... So here we go to make this record in the same room, and I had to tweak the formula somewhat. [W]e'd go into the magic room, the poor shelter, and make a record, bringing in Shahzad again as our extra energy, to be a creative and technical advisor. We made it in late spring, early summer of this year, and we came into it with 12 songs that we had played once in Chicago at Millennium Park. When we got into the session it felt as if maybe two of them were outsiders, so we excised those and had a collection. That's my story. That's the [Wolfroy] record.
While incredbily subdued, Wolfroy Goes To Town emerges as a very powerful and emotional record. Kelly, Ismaily, and the rhythm section capture Oldham's latest songwriting offerings with might and nuance. There are classic country sounds ("No Match"), but most of the record draws its inspiration from British folks sounds seeping through Appalachia. Songs sound like hymns to love, death, friendship, and life itself.
The quiet nature of Wolfroy will no doubt have many comparing it to Oldham's earliest stripped-down recording, Days In The Wake. This will happen becase the most common perspective in examining Oldham is to use his first three Palace records as his career paradigm.
1993's There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You by the Palace Brothers was Oldham's debut and it was a rough, ramshackle affair soaked in fire and brimstone imagery. Palace followed that up the next year with Days In The Wake, a stripped-down record that sounded almost like songwriting demos. A year later came Viva Last Blues a fiery collection of near-southern rock which was helmed by uber-hot 90s producer Steve Albini. Due to the sheer enormity of releases that followed, critics and fans often compare subsequent releases to one of these three albums.
An alternate point of view comes when one looks at Oldham's recordings since adopting the Bonnie "Prince" Bllly moniker in 1999 with the release of I See A Darkness. Now that Oldham is more than a decade removed from the Bonnie "Prince" Billy name debut, as well as dozens more releases under his belt, it might surprise some that he has only released 8 proper Bonnie "Prince" Billy albums in this span. Looking at these albums alone tells its own story apart from the commonly held Palace paradigm.
Oldham is known to be cryptic in interviews, but the same Pitchfork interview reveals the effect that Nashville had on Oldham during 2003's Master And Everyone:
[Not] only did we not know how to make a record, or necessarily how to write a song, but we didn't know that [access to professional musicians] was even conceivable. I didn't understand session musicians until I took the Master and Everyone songs to [Lambchop's] Mark Nevers in Nashville, on David Berman's (Silver Jews) recommendation. We were looking for something to complement what my brother Paul and I had done in the performances, and Mark said, "Let's call the Singers Union and get a female singer in here, and I'll look in the yellow pages and find a cellist." These people came and I was like, "What the hell? What's going on here? What universe is this?"
The very next Bonnie "Prince" Billy album was Bonnie "Prince" Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music in which Oldham covered songs from his Palace era backed by A-list Nashville session players. While some fans and critics thought the album might have thought the release to have been a sly joke, it seems now to be the beginning of Oldham searching for a more complete, produced sound.
While a journey from ragged Pentacostle preacher to Nashville country singer seems meandering, the underpinning found on each proper Bonnie "Prince" Billy album signals a clear direction. The confident effortlessness found on Wolfroy often becomes breathtaking, a summation of all the musical rabbit holes that Oldham has explored in the last decade.
It isn't often that artists are so honest, both in their art and with their public persona. On Wolfroy Goes To Town Will Oldham reveals himself yet again as an important southern artist who continues to grow when people are least paying attention.
- Jim Markel
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