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Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - Wolfroy Goes To Town

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Artist: Bonnie 'Prince' Billy

Album: Wolfroy Goes To Town

Label: Drag City

Review date: Oct. 6, 2011

At face value, Wolfroy Goes To Town is another fine Will Oldham record. The songs are sparse, yet beautiful, and the vocal arrangements are heart-wrenching. Over the years, Oldham has become a master of simple songs with simple lyrics, sung so beautifully that the listener is forced to reconsider, say, the relatively banal plight of a starving married couple (“Quail and Dumplings”). Where pretty much any other act using early-20th Century rural music as a reference point in 2011 seems awfully willing to put on their tan vests, grow out their beards, and call it a day, Oldham is dedicated to reminding us that those old blues and country songs sound the way they do for a reason, and that, when played with a straight enough face, there’s a beauty and a terror inside that style that persists almost 100 years later.

Wolfroy Goes To Town is something more, though. These 10 songs reflect a man’s seemingly inevitable loss of faith and belief in his institutions. “God isn’t listening,” Oldham says in “Time To Be Clear,” “or else it’s too late.” “Black Captain” serves as the clearest example, where a man says goodbye to his former sea captain as the latter passes into senility. The relationship in “New Whaling” — an echo of perhaps Oldham’s finest song, “New Partner” — has hit a dead end, with the pitiful chorus of “so far, and here we are.” The list goes on, as God and relationships let people down via Oldham’s fragile, half-talked baritone.

Only on the chorus of “Quail and Dumplings,” the strongest song on the album, is God portrayed as benevolent (not to mention, a woman, described as “our bosom friend”). Later in the song, guest vocalist Angel Olsen displays the most assertiveness of any character on Wolfroy, bellowing “fuck birds in the bushes, let’s take them in hand.” Oldham’s husband ends up talking her down, though, and the couple goes on hoping against hope that they’ll end up with that quail and those dumplings, praying instead of acting.

Speaking of Olsen, the Chicago singer’s contributions can’t be overstated. Her harmonies on the climax of “Cows” and solo verse in “Quail” are the most cathartic moments on the entire record, and the record’s theme of failed masculinity hits home each time she steps away from the microphone. It’s not easy to sing on songs as dramatic as the ones on Wolfroy, particularly when there’s so little instrumentation to fall back on. Olsen knocks it out of the park, and it’s easy to see major parts of the album falling flat with a lesser talent on backup vocals.

Wolfroy Goes To Town is the sound of a lack, a series of sparse arrangements complementing desolate lyrics about rural desolation. As is his wont as Bonnie Prince Billy, the otherwise jocular Oldham channels the destitution with reverence. The result makes for a listening experience that’s intense and potentially awkward, but one that also somehow rings true.

By Joe Bernardi

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