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Dawn McCarthy and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy - What the Brothers Sang

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Artist: Dawn McCarthy and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy

Album: What the Brothers Sang

Label: Drag City

Review date: Feb. 14, 2013

Dawn McCarthy & Bonnie "Prince" Billy - What the Brothers Sang trailer

The idea of a full album of Everly Brothers covers by Will Oldham and Dawn McCarthy (of Faun Fables, and Oldham’s collaborator on 2006’s The Letting Go ), seems strange enough on its own. The quirkiness of What the Brothers Sang, then, is only augmented by the duo’s choice of cuts: almost all of the material here comes from the Brothers’ late-1960s period, and steers clear of their familiar late-’50s hits. Oldham and McCarthy’s affection for these songs, however, borders on the reverential: They don’t use the obscure originals as raw material for their own creative explorations, but rather carry out largely faithful covers that feel more like homage than anything else. The end result is an album that feels something like a campfire sing-along (even if most listeners won’t know the words). It’s a heartfelt collaboration between friends, resolutely modest in spirit, and one of Oldham’s most straightforward and easy-to-like albums.

The wide range of material covered on Brothers gives it something of a patchwork feel. Because these are songs the brothers sang, without necessarily writing them, different voices are clearly audible throughout: Album highlight “Empty Boxes” is a quirky folk ballad penned by the Beau Brummels’ Ron Elliot; “Just What I Was Looking For” is a baroque pop obscurity by Gerry Goffin and Carole King (who wrote for The Monkees and The Byrds, among many others); while “Poems, Prayers and Promises” was original found on the John Denver album of the same name. McCarthy and Oldham’s takes vary in their successfulness, although none really fall flat. McCarthy’s soulfulness perfectly suits the more emotive ballads (Kris Kristofferson’s “Breakdown,” “It’s All Over”), although the duo perhaps reach their most synergistic moment on the lone ’50s track, Boudleaux Bryant’s “Devoted to You,” turning in a quiet, simple performance that distills the calm contentment that permeates the album as a whole. Their sincere stab at John Denver, meanwhile, can’t overcome the source material’s cloying sweetness, and the bar-band rock of “Somebody Help Me” feels awkward in the context of the otherwise laid-back atmosphere.

As was likely their intention, McCarthy and Oldham also stir one’s curiosity about what precisely the Everlys were up to in the late ’60s. While long acknowledged in certain circles as fundamental to the development of country rock, they also managed to transcend categorization and boundaries in a way few artists of their time could, standing above the fray with little regard for hipness or commerciality to construct their own unique amalgam of American pop/folk/rock/country music. A successful homage, What the Brothers Sang seems to distill and convey this vision, showing us the Everlys through McCarthy’s and Oldham’s eyes, but in such a way that allows their distinct aesthetic to shine clearly through.

By Michael Cramer

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