Review of Bonnie Prince Billy's album Lie Down In The Light.
He's nothing if not prolific, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, aka Will Oldham, straight outta Kentucky with an acoustic guitar and a handful of friends to accompany him. This is the first of two albums apparently scheduled for release this year, and it's not exactly an ungenerous piece of work, featuring twelve tracks. Still, I suppose that's fairly easy to do when you keep the arrangements simple and keep to a fairly narrow template. There's no outrageous experiments here: the vocals and guitar pretty much drive everything, and the various other instruments are here to lend what I suppose might be called 'texture'.
Where it works, this record tends to work quite well. 'Easy Does It' is chirpy enough in a campfire kind of way, but it's eclipsed by 'You Remind Me of Someone', which features a male/female duet singing a wistful tune and also showcases a very fetching fiddle part deftly skipping over the top. 'So Everyone' suffers badly by virtue of its juxtaposition to what precedes it. It plods by comparison: the chords clunk and the vocals sound forced. It's partly rescued later on by some harmonies and slide guitar, but there's also an improbable chord change that jars a little, and I'm not convinced about the brief touches of falsetto. 'For Everyfield There's Mole' introduces an electric piano and a clarinet into the brew but is otherwise fairly forgettable.
'Keep Eye On Other's Gain' features some pretty authetic steam train impersonations, but again there's those jarring bits of falsetto and it just kind of potters along without doing much. 'You Want That Picture' begins with a bit of distortion, but we're back to the voices and guitar template soon enough. A little hurried percussion and some slide guitar spice up the mix briefly. 'Missing One' features some rather lovely chords, and has a confessional intimacy that so far has been lacking. There's a piano in there somewhere as that works pretty well, and the almost hidden percussion keeps things ticking along nicely. The abrupt ending's a nice touch too. Definitely a highlight. 'What's Missing Is' is a bit of regression. 'What's missing is a bit of imagination', I might say if I was being harsh. And it would be harsh, because there's a very welcome, almost ambient country feel that develops later on, with fiddle, accordion (I think) and a slowly plucked banjo.
'Where Is The Puzzle' has a shuffly up-tempo (well, relatively) feel, and some deft electric guitar at the start, but some of the chord progressions are a tad predictable and the slide guitar seems to make things soggy rather than adding anything positive. 'Lie Down In The Light' is a pretty straightforward number, but does feature a very understated piano part and some OK vocal harmonies. 'Willow Trees Bend' is the quietest track on the album, and for me doesn't work. It sounds like self-indulgence of the worst kind. Maybe it's meant to sound stripped-down and honest, but to me it sounds contrived, the percussion an afterthought. 'I'll Be Glad' is a cover of a Shannon Stephens song (she used to be in a band with Sufjan Stephens, it says here), and it shows. There's a sprightliness to it that is absent from the rest of the album, and it sounds more obviously country and western than what's gone before. An odd way to end, perhaps.
It has to be said that I'm not the greatest fan of acoustic-driven Americana, but if that's your thing, you may well like this. It does kind of work in a blurry two-in-the-morning kind of way, but it doesn't really do very much. If you prefer something a bit more challenging and a little less formulaic then I'd suggest you look elsewhere. Maybe being prolific has its pitfalls, Billy ...