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Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy & The Cairo Gang - The Wonder Show of the World

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Artist: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy & The Cairo Gang

Album: The Wonder Show of the World

Label: Drag City

Review date: Apr. 19, 2010

Traditional signs of spring include the start of spring training, the NCAA basketball tournaments, the tax filing deadline. For the last three years, a new album from Will Oldham has also heralded the change in the seasons. The Wonder Show of the World is his latest, after the excellent, surprisingly upbeat Lie Down in the Light (released in May 2008) and the darker Beware (released in March 2009). Overall, it’s the seventh album of new material that Oldham has released in the last eight years (and it bears noting that in the gap year, 2007, he did release a mini-album, Ask Forgiveness). If Oldham sometimes ironically references the work of early Nashville stars, he’s managed to settle into a brisk and professional pace that all of them could admire.

This is the first album credited to Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and the Cairo Gang, although Emmett Kelly and Shahzad Ismaily of the Cairo Gang have both worked with him before. Both of them take larger roles on The Wonder Show of the World: Kelly’s guitar work is front and center on each song, while Ismaily sings on a few tracks and plays bass and percussion throughout.

Most of Oldham’s albums are centered around a loose theme; on The Wonder Show of the World, that theme appears to be the joys and frustrations of fellowship, broadly conceived. Oldham’s lyrics are often Delphic, but on “Go Folks” where he sings “I ain’t hemmed in, I ain’t walled-up . . . . Freedom is a hard won gamble; so is holding things like you,” the contentment comes across plainly. Similarly, “That’s What Our Love Is” might be one of the most straightforward love songs he’s ever written. Other songs, however, have narrators who aren’t quite so fortunate: On “Troublesome Houses,” the narrator “once loved a girl, but she couldn’t take that I visited troublesome houses.” (The lesson: stay out of the bars, kids.) On “With Cornstalks or Among Them,” he promises that “happiness can live her still, if coming back you only will.”

The music (which is credited to the Cairo Gang) is in a soft folk vein and sounds as though it were designed to be complementary to Oldham’s lyrics rather than to showcase the Cairo Gang’s own talents. Kelly picks his spots, however – he ends “That’s What Our Love Is” with an impressive solo. And the album’s best song, “Troublesome Houses,” is what it is because of the low-key country rock backing from Ismaily and Kelly.

Oldham was the subject of an impressive New Yorker piece last year that suggested he’s managed to become one of America’s most celebrated singer-songwriters without ever trying to make a breakthrough album or to go beyond a dedicated cult following. The Wonder Show of the World is further evidence of that strategy: among his recent efforts, it ranks somewhere between Lie Down in the Light and The Letting Go, although parts of it (in particular “Troublesome Houses and “Teach Me to Bear You”) rank with anything on the prior. No matter what, though, it’s the annual Oldham album, and that will be welcome news to a lot of people.

By Tom Zimpleman

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