Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Music Review: Bonnie 'Prince' Billy & the Cairo Gang - The Wonder Show of the World

"It’s interesting to note that an artist such as Will Oldham—who for nearly 20 years now has built a reputation as one of the most solemn-minded troubadours of his generation—would exhibit a lighter, more carefree vibe on much of his laudable recent work. And after only so much as a nominal retreat back into darker themes on last year’s relatively average Beware, it’s nice to once again see Oldham return to his warmer side here in the new decade with another in a long line of collaborative efforts, this time with Emmett Kelly, recent muse and leader of the genre bending folk crew the Cairo Gang. Appropriately, for a team who has spent the last few albums working together (including Oldham’s late-career solo peak Lie Down in the Light), this official collaboration, The Wonder Show of the World, feels more natural and instinctive than some of Oldham’s other recent partnerships, coming across as a continuation of Lie Down’s peaceful resignation, rather than another attempt at re-capturing the death-folk rattle of I See a Darkness or Superwolf.

As has become tradition for any number of Oldham releases, we are again treated to an absolutely fantastic opener on The Wonder Show of the World. “Troublesome Houses” skips along comfortably for a breezy four minutes, evidencing a partnership that has grown increasingly intuitive over the years. When Oldham and Kelley’s voices wrap seamlessly around the track’s light, swaying chorus, it becomes blindingly evident that these two are trusting conspirators. Also somewhat familiar, but certainly never this informally detailed, is Oldham’s oddly poignant portrait of relational conventions, whether that be through healthy discourse on “Teach Me to Bear You” or between-the-sheets pillow-talk on album centerpiece “That’s What Our Love Is,” which features some of Oldham’s most memorable sexual commentary in years. And while still rooted pretty firmly in tried-and-true Americana, it’s impressive how far Oldham and Kelley stretch the confines of their chosen genres here, whether that be through reverb-y dream-pop (“With Cornstalks or Among Them”) or back porch spontaneity (“Go Folks, Go”)

There is certainly much to enjoy and recommend throughout The Wonder Show of the World, though following the climatic “That’s What Our Love Is,” there's a noticeable turn toward slightly less developed material (save, ironically, for the chillingly effective “Someone Coming Through”). Nothing is particularly bad here, but formless tracks such “Merciless and Great,” “Where Wind Blows” and closer “Kids” leave much to be desired on a brief, 10 song album, particularly after the record’s consistently wonderful first half. And with so much material continuing to pile up under Oldham’s many pseudonyms, each new outing can begin to exist in degrees relative to one another, making it rather difficult to reconcile an individual record's merits. So with that in my mind, I’d say that of his more recent work, The Wonder Show of the World is definitely superior to Beware, though not nearly on par with Lie Down in the Light or Oldham’s 2005 collaboration with Chavez guitarist Matt Sweeney, Superwolf. In other words, the curious should probably start with one of those two gems, while Oldham adherents should be pleased with the easy-going charm of this well-formed collaboration, particularly since so few artists demonstrate Oldham’s unique ability to keep his ideas fresh for listeners whose expectations continue to stay elevated." [73/100] [Published 04.13.10]

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