Is It The Sea album review from Bonnie 'Prince' Billy with Harem Scarem and Alex Neilson released through Domino Records.
Recorded live in Edinburgh during his 2006 tour, Is It The Sea is the latest offering from the seemingly inexhaustible creative mine that is Will Oldham. Fourteen studio albums, countless EPs and now three live albums in a fifteen-year period constitutes a Herculean work-rate on the part of Mr. Oldham and his numerous alter egos. Accompanied by Scottish folkies-in-residence Harem Scarem and the apposite drumming of Alex Neilson, Oldham revisits, reinterprets and reinvigorates several of his best-known songs in a curiously engaging style. There is a distinct free-form, open air feel to the performance that contrasts with the darker, claustrophobic atmosphere of much of his studio work. Droning accordions and somnolent fiddles merge with Neilson's delicate, jazz-tinged brushwork to create a pervasive soundscape upon which Oldham's intense, brittle voice is rendered as alluring as ever.
On Love Comes To Me and New Partner, the result is glorious. The former is transformed into a yelping little foot-tapper (as is Arise Therefore) and the latter retains all its original warm country-waltz charm. The hushed, swooping harmonies that weave through each song, at once both sweet and ragged, complement Oldham's more unswerving vocal delivery impeccably, particularly on Ain't You Wealthy?, Ain't You Wise?. Conversely, Wolf Among Wolves and Master and Everyone perhaps suffer for a lack of structure; the torpid pace and punctuated rhythm diminish the lyrical impact that characterised the original Master and Everyone album. That said, Oldham's ability to deftly slow-build a song remains undeniable. Cursed Sleep swells menacingly for several minutes before erupting into a melodica/flute/whistle fireball and is surely the highlight of a very good album. Lo-Fi, Alternative Folk is very popular at the moment. Not all of it is this good.