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6/10/2004

Music > Music Feature

KING OF THE PALACE

 

There's a Japanese aesthetic known as wabi-sabi that values humble things that tend toward the transient or unfinished. (Animated Zen master Bobby Hill once described it as "the art of imperfection.") And whether he knows it or not, Bonnie "Prince" Billy – aka Will Oldham, aka Palace (Brothers, Music, Songs and variations thereof) – is the musical embodiment of wabi-sabi. His canon is a collection of crackly-voiced, evocative dirges so stripped and rickety that they often sound unfinished or improvised. However, closer listening reveals Oldham's brilliance for crafting articulate hooks from the most rudimentary of tonal sketches, paralleling that of Hank Williams or Neil Young – even Johnny Cash covered one of his songs.

So when he decided to record an album with a full-blown Nashville band, he confounded devotees and critics alike who'd grown accustomed to the dark, stark and bawdy Billy. He arrived at the idea after recording with Mark Nevers (of Lambchop) on previous release Master and Everyone, who, according to Oldham, "would suggest a slide guitar here and strings there."

But rather than commit a new clutch of songs to Nevers' treatment, Oldham chose to reinterpret tried-and-true numbers for Sings Greatest Palace Music: "I didn't trust the new scenario ... and I didn't want to risk all that time and money when I didn't know how it would turn out." Not a very bold move, but it pays off. The reworked versions straighten Oldham's meandering impulses, polishing them to a rhinestone shine, but retain his trademark slack-jawed carelessness. More than anything, the new record openly challenges those who would pigeonhole him as the consummate lo-fi troubadour to now accept him as the highfalutin hillbilly he's always wanted to become.

Though to Oldham, it's all business as usual: "The songs [will continue to] change every night, with whomever I happen to be playing with."

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