Bonnie Prince Billy
Summer in the Southeast
Sea Note/Drag City
lmost two years ago I watched Will Oldham perform a solo show at the Detroit Institute of Arts, a pow-wow affair where everyone sat cross-legged around Oldham in the spectacular Diego Rivera room. It was an odd spectacle produced by a decidedly odd artist, but things weren’t as weird as they first seemed. Rivera’s bulbous, industrious characters seemed in tune with Oldham’s bare head and his everyman folk. Of course, all artistic pretense was shattered the moment Oldham took the stage in a bright pink jumpsuit strumming an autoharp, Joan Baez-style.
Following such a unique experience, Oldham’s first live album, Summer in the Southeast seems almost pedestrian in comparison. The setup—even with livewire Matt Sweeney on guitar—is vanilla rock ‘n’ roll, and the recording locales—Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and North Carolina—seem like they must have been routine tour stops last summer.
It takes little more than one listen, however, to realize that even if Oldham is going through the indie rock touring motions here, Summer is a muscular re-imagining of his work, past and present. More importantly, it showcases what Oldham can do with a brash, husky rock band, the likes of which he hasn’t recorded with since his early Palace days.
Oldham has bottled his voice on recent albums, treading softly over even softer arrangements, so it’s easy to forget how manic and disorienting his wail can be. And so it’s disarming to hear him howl on opener “Master and Everyone,” formerly a too-quiet acoustic ballad. Oldham opens up his throat and the band warms up with a bruising psychedelic passage.
It is this kind of amped performance that makes Summer a truly valuable addition to Oldham’s catalog. On “May it Always Be” Oldham cedes the spotlight to Pink Nasty for a breakneck romp. Two I See a Darkness gems—“Death to Everyone” and “Madeleine Mary”—benefit wildly from Oldham’s barnstorming cohorts, the latter’s gutsy chug chewed up by foaming vocal incantations. “I Send My Love to You” starts slowly but is rescued by a rockabilly shuffle. The album’s length—17 songs and 67 minutes—means even excellent songs like “A Sucker’s Evening” and “Blokbuster,” can get lost in the mix, but the individual performances are almost uniformly excellent.
Summer draws splendidly from Oldham’s entire catalog. In fact, the only disappointment is the dearth of tracks from the then-unreleased Superwolf collaboration with Sweeney—only a whispering “Beast for Thee” appears here. Seeing the band beef up for tracks like “Master” makes Oldham’s solo take on “Nomadic Revery” and “Even if Thee” seem comparatively limp.
Indeed, ballads often feel like speed bumps for the troupe, and while they are by no means inadequate, they don’t differ or improve substantially from the album versions. They do, however, balance the disc, and create a necessary lust for the animal racket. Despite first appearances, Summer succeeds largely because it forces Oldham’s songs into unfamiliar positions. No pink jumpsuits, to be sure, but Summer will do just fine.