March 4, 2004

Test Spin: Will Oldham

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Everyone from Stanley Kubrick to Faust (forgive the redundancy) has been drawn to the gray despondency, stultifying silence, and cadaverous placidity of the sea and the sailors who wearily work above it. No surprise then that Will Oldham (Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Palace Music), the most tender and baroque player on the death-throe troubadour scene, would make this lengthy EP scoring a documentary on Rotterdam seafarers.

The soundtrack is divided into four tracks, each only serving as a placeholder for the immeasurable oscillations Oldham’s frail fingers and suspiciously gentle guitar induce on the claustrophobic atmosphere. The repetitive ditties feebly pace out to the horizon tripping over vague arpeggios, fish scales, scarred strings, and entwining lines. Occasionally, they exult in a brief bout of energizing, if slightly bizarre, thunder, and recede into the waves again. The nine-minute “Bogo” even includes a few sly allusions to the traditional folk song jamborees sailors indulge in during calm spots, locating dabs of mirth and love amidst the general misery and lethargy. “Emmanuel” finds solace in tundra blues and sparing doses of settling static.

There are no lyrics, no drums, only the faintest trace of bass, and barely any chords. These omissions usually preclude personality as well, but Oldham brings just enough indie-rock pathos and menace to ensure these songs never deteriorate into your grandfather’s mast-climbing shanties. Nevertheless, a good soundtrack for waking up on frigid mornings (or frigid moorings, depending on how crazy your night was), tying knots, getting nauseous, befriending a sailor, or just drinking whiskey like one.

Archived article by Alex Linhardt