The Brave and the Bold – Tortoise and Bonnie "Prince" Billy
Overcoat Recordings 27
A few months ago, I wrote about an Iron and Wine/Calexico EP in the terms of a superhero team-up. There was nothing particularly clever about the angle; I just wanted to sneak Daredevil into a review (which I've now done twice). I wouldn't drag out the recycled metaphor if Tortoise and Bonnie 'Prince'
Billy didn't make the leap for me, lifting the title of their newest, _The
Brave and the Bold_, from the old DC Comics superhero team-up title.
This seemingly incongruous pairing of the crackle-throated Appalachian
warbler with Chicago's post-rockin' jazzcats finds the collaborators
steaming through a series of both well-known and wildly obscure covers with
perhaps predictably mixed results, but the moments where these heroes click,
well, it's goodness.
Bonnie 'Prince' Billy moonlights as the mild-mannered Will Oldham and
records under a dizzying string of aliases (Palace, Palace Songs, Palace
Brothers, Will Oldham, Superwolf, etc.) In his 'Bonnie' costume, he
generally leans toward more acoustic fare, which makes this match so
seemingly odd, but Oldham has proven himself an impressive interpreter of
source material in whichever guise he assumes (seek out his "Brokedown
Palace" or his insidious live take on R. Kelly's "Ignition"), and it's
Oldham's interpretive knack that saves the day here. While Tortoise's work
is predictably tasteful and increasingly surprising on repeat listenings,
this is clearly Oldham's record, despite the better known Chicago
collective's top billing.
The group covers tracks from Elton John, Springsteen, Devo, Don Williams,
Lungfish, Richard Thompson, and a slew of folks I don't know well, and like
most of the team-up comics, the record as a whole leaves quite a bit to be
desired. Roughly half of the tracks are sluggish regurgitations of source
material that take advantage of none of the participants’ strengths. If
Oldham's powers are in his pen and Tortoise's powers lie in their ability to
startle and entrance, then these faceless tracks are the work of the
temporarily powerless. But there are moments on the album that make it all
worth it to these ears.
Oldham punches holes in The Boss's celebratory "Thunder Road", draggin his
way through the track in an over-burdened second gear. In Oldham's hands,
admitting that "all the redemption I can offer girl is beneath this dirty
hood" ain't such a good thing. Without changing a word, Oldham offers an
inverted reading, one that emphasizes the desperate "last chance" of it all
rather than the windows-down freedom the Boss is trying to monger. Where
Springsteen is enlivened by the promise that "tonight we'll be free,"
Oldam's narrator realizes that it's only tonight, that the long road leads
to darkness, not to light. It's at once faithful and bitterly ironic.
But there's nothing ironic about his rendering of Elton John's "Daniel"
where Oldham buries his cracking falsetto behind layers of distortion and
fuzz. I can go years without every thinking twice about Elton John as a
musician or songwriter. He's inescapable as a personality, but I forget for
vast stretches of time that he's a brilliant songwriter. But then Page
opens the 8/13/97 Starlake show with "Amoreena". Then Cameron Crowe pins the best scene of Almost Famous around "Tiny Dancer". And now
there's Oldham, scraping away all of the excremental Jimmy Buffetty build up
off John's version with Tortoise slapping
brilliantly-spooky-damn-near-whale-calling-goodness all over the track and
suddenly I think Elton John is some kind of savant again. Oldham's reading,
despite sonic disparity, is faithful. He tweaks John's melody slightly and
adds a little world weariness but leaves the song otherwise unaltered.
Similarly faithful, Richard Thompson's "Calvary Cross" finds Tortoise at its
Tortoisy best, slinking around the chord progression, always within striking
distance of the beat if not always on it. Though Oldham does flatten out a
few of the melodies, this is the kind of roughly straight take on the
original that would encourage me to dig into the Richard Thompson vaults if
I weren't clinging so fiercely to my unreasoned hatred of the evil
mastermind behind that damn "Vincent Black Lighting" song.
So what's left? Bonnie Billy, working against character, peps up Devo's
"That's Pep!" (which should count for something I suppose), but then he
takes most of the fun out of the Minutemen's "It's Expected I'm Gone". (He
seems to take an especial glee in shouting out the "Big fucking shit – right
now man" line, but who wouldn't?) And in some ways that's the album in a
nut shell – up here and down there. Is it disappointing to see two such
singular talents play it straight so often? To some degree, sure, but
they're smart enough to know that you don't have to reinvent a good song.
That may not be a super power, but I'll take it.