This unplugged set is the audio companion to Oldham’s new book of the same name – a compendium of lyrics to over 200 songs he’s written for Palace Brothers, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and other recording projects over the past 25 years. If he’s not a household name, he’s an indie rock icon and touchstone for 21st century folkies of a certain slant; he’s covered by Johnny Cash, written for soul vet Candi Staton, collaborated with Bjork, and sung backup with numerous top-shelf singer-songwriters. And like other song-poet heavyweights, Dylan and Lou Reed among them, his own back catalog has often been fair game for re-invention — see his 2004 Bonnie “Prince” Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music, where he polished and plumped some of his best tracks with veteran Nashville studio pros.
This set takes a more minimalist tack, laying bare a dozen songs with only his voice and acoustic guitar. It’s a winning approach for a musician deeply rooted in folk styles, and who possesses an almost Sinatra-esque mastery of phrasing. There are songs that have defined Oldham (“Ohio River Boat Song,” the Johnny Cash-certified “I See A Darkness”), deep catalog items (“So Far and Here We Are,” “The Way”), and of course, being the charming kook he is, some curveballs. One is a riveting a capella cover of Richard Thompson’s “Strange Affair,” which takes minor liberties with the words to deliver an even bleaker vision than the original, quite an achievement. Another is a lo-fi cassette recording of something called “Party With Marty,” an amiably salacious Beach Boys manqué showing the lusty existentialism that runs through Oldham’s entire body of work. Even dude’s knock-offs land like keepers.