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Modern poet Will Oldham sings of his dark ideas

| Friday, June 22, 2001

Will Oldham
  • With Speed to Roam/ Arco Flute Foundation
  • 7:30 p.m. Monday.
  • $10.
  • Club Laga, Oakland.
  • (412) 682-2050.

    Out of Site
  • Get Directions
  • Club Laga
  • CDnow Will Oldham Discography

  • There are a lot of solo singer-songwriters in the world. Sure, it's not easy baring your soul for all to see, with just a guitar to hide behind. It's even harder to stand out, to tell stories that we haven't all heard before.

    So, it stands to reason that anyone who discards the overwrought language of the singer-songwriters and makes their maudlin subjects sit up, crack their knuckles and take big lungfuls of air would be welcome, right•

    Will Oldham, performing Monday at Club Laga, is a singer-songwriter only in that he happens to sing and write songs. Oldham's songs contain lines such as these from 'Another Day Full of Dread':

    Today was another day full of dread
    But I never said I was afraid
    Dread and fear should not be confused
    By dread I'm inspired, by fear I'm amused

    In contemporary music, churning out inarticulate angst is an industry in itself. Oldham, though, has made a career out of describing the vague spaces in between traditional pop song emotions, creating entire albums of seriously dark foreboding and ill portent.

    In describing his recent collaborators, guitarist Mick Turner and drummer Jim White, Oldham also seems to cryptically describe himself.

    'Some people like to make their music within an existence that is wholly determinable,' he says. 'Sometimes people will make music that goes out of bounds.'

    Oldham's songs frequently contain harrowing narratives of murder and infidelity - often told in the first person - interspersed with apparently sincere songs of love and joy. This weird dialogue between the detached perspective of the storyteller and the highly personal is part of what makes Oldham's songs compelling. His songs often are dense, ambiguous and fraught with intricate layers of meaning - which means it's important that the listener meet him halfway for the songs to make complete sense. This is a fairly common idea in poetry, but isn't it asking a lot of a pop-music audience?

    Says Oldham: 'Poetry has had its chance in this century. Whatever role it took in terms of audience in centuries past has sort of been superseded by music now, because it's just an easier and more pleasurable and direct way of receiving ideas.'

    His early albums, usually under the guise of The Palace Brothers, were intense front-porch Appalachian bluegrass, littered with imagery that was biblical and profane. As many in the alt-rock world began to tire of mosh pits, Oldham's quiet, intense songs garnered a cult following. He currently records under the name Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, and now usually makes rugged, Crazy-Horse-like rock with a full band.

    Recent projects include 'Almost Heaven,' a strange baroque pop EP with producer Rian Murphy, which Oldham describes as 'songs being joyfully called into existence without concern for literal meaning.'

    Oldham also has performed as live accompaniment for the silent horror classic 'Nosferatu,' and for a documentary about Dutch Harbor, Alaska. He also scored a film on the civil war in Burundi with local African musicians.

    The Man in Black, of all people, is a fan. Johnny Cash chose to cover 'I See a Darkness' on his latest album, 'American Recordings III,' and the results are clearly the centerpiece of Cash's most relevant recording in years. Cash apparently felt enough of a connection to this song about friendship in the face of despair, that he had Oldham sing backup. Of this near-sublime bit of musical rapport, Oldham is modest - Cash's producer 'Rick Rubin had taped it for him, and I guess that John and June (Cash's wife) thought it would go well. ...'

    Michael Machosky can be reached at (412) 320-7901 or mmachosky@tribweb.com .

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