Tortoise and Bonnie “Prince” Billy
The Brave and the Bold
t’s a shame that this particular idea didn’t really work out as well as it could have—a collaboration between two indie titans, playing an interesting selection of cover tunes. In the past when members of Tortoise have crossed paths with Will Oldham, it has sounded fresh and simple, a well-matched team-up. The whole problem with this album is with the range of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s vocals—as good as he is at what he does, he can’t really do justice to the sprawling musical intelligence of Tortoise.
On a standard Oldham/Billy-styled record, it doesn’t take much for the listener to fall under his spell and become inured to his delicate, cracked vocal whine. But the man’s real skill lies in journeying along with his own thinly veined melodies, faltering harmonies, and shadowy narratives—not with a band as perfectly chaotic as Tortoise. I’m not disputing his talents on his own material, but something is severely lacking here. He’s well out of his depth riding Tortoise’s carapace of open-minded exploration. In a ideal world The Brave and the Bold would’ve been a three-disc set; a Tortoise instrumental set, a simple Oldham guitar and voice session, and Tortoise playing with a bunch of other vocalists.
A rare example here of Oldham giving way to Tortoise is the lively Latin opener, a version of Milton Nascimento’s “Cravo É Canela,” which manages to subdue his vocals into the mix of group singing. The song’s Latin-swing-and-stamp movement is cut up with horns and vibrant guitar, showing instantly that Tortoise are capable of shifting states and aping moods rather than being stuck with the definitive tag of “Post-rock with swagger” so many would saddle them with.
Tortoise pump each song full of different combinations of the members’ bloodstreams proving the band to be capable of consistently stunning reinterpretations. There’s a rip-up of Mike Watt’s “It's Expected I'm Gone” that gives it a set of rubbery new legs to stumble on; Elton John’s mighty “Daniel” gets a Spacemen 3-style digital whitewash; eternal emo band Lungfish’s “Love is Love” is re-read as Krautrock-era Kraftwerk. But for all of Tortoise’s ingenuity and inspiration, Oldham’s vocals remain stoic and he brings nothing but straight readings to the table.
Oldham’s bored take on Springsteen’s "Thunder Road" (a song of the possibility of salvation) is backed up by an outstanding prog-Santana/bar-confessional mood that smacks of defeatism and slowly curling smoke; it seems likely that another vocalist could’ve matched the mood a little better than the Prince. Even the messy mosh of “That's Pep!” (Devo) doesn’t see him strain too much to sound like anything other than the same old Oldham. The two sides nearly gel with the cleaned up Palace Rock of both “The Calvary Cross” (beardy bloke Richard Thompson) and “Pancho” (Don Williams), which use backing vocals and less experimental arrangements/ instrumentation to leave Oldham more settled.
The vast majority of this release just doesn’t stick together coherently and suffers because of it. I’m unsure of what the recording process was for The Brave and the Bold but it sounds like Oldham popped in to do his vocals after the fact. There’s no one really to blame for this album’s lack of consistence or quality, but this is still a very disappointing collaboration coming from these two acts.
Reviewed by: Scott McKeating
Reviewed on: 2006-01-24