Will Oldham – aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, aka Palace Brothers or Palace Music or plain old Bonny Billy – is a man that seemingly never stops working. Since 1993, his name (in one form or another) has graced fourteen studio albums, over 15 EPs and now, with the release of Is It The Sea?, three live albums.
In that time he’s worked with everyone from experimental post-rock band Tortoise to Scout Niblett to Baby Dee. He’s also acted in films, covered songs by both R. Kelly and Bjork, plus last year starred in a spoof Kanye West video. He’s a man that cares little for commercial success or any notion of supporting an album, shown here by the fact that Is It The Sea? is taken from his 2006 tour of Scotland, a tour designed to introduce his album The Letting Go, which isn’t even his last studio release, that being 2008’s Lay Down In The Light. His production rate is such that not even his record company seems to be able to keep up.
To give this album its full artist credit means mentioning the backing band for the tour, including Glasgow’s Alex Neilson on drums and percussion and Edinburgh’s Harem Scarem on harmonies, flute, fiddle, banjo and accordion. Their input is telling, helping turn Oldham’s hushed, dark, sometimes funereal songs toward the light allowing them to flirt dangerously with happiness. Well, relatively speaking.
Opener Minor Place, taken from the astounding I See A Darkness, becomes a campfire sing along, whilst Arise Therefore moves from a snails pace to a near hoedown. Apparently, Neilson is a free jazz fan and it’s his drum fills and jazzy interludes that help make this more then just another addition to Oldham’s growing discography.
One of the charms of any Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy album is his voice, an instrument that cracks and croaks but sounds all the more engaging for doing so. It’s on fine form here, especially on the bleak murder ballad, New Partner.
In fact, sonically, Is It The Sea? sounds better then the majority of Oldham’s studio recordings, the distinction between the two perhaps almost irrelevant. Never one for studio trickery in the first place, this album benefits simply from Oldham’s improved musicianship.
It’s not all good news, however, mainly due to the fact that a handful of songs outstay their welcome, most obviously the eight minute Molly Bawn and The Letting Go’s Cursed Sleep. Although, the inclusion of at least thirty seconds of loud applause on each song doesn’t help matters, neither does the fact that it’s left so high in the mix meaning that just as your getting into a country-tinged, laidback kind of mood you’re suddenly startled by the crowd and the mood is broken.
I realise that bemoaning the inclusion of crowd noise on a live album is a bit pointless, but when it detracts from the enjoyment of the album then it’s a valid grumble. But it’s a minor issue, and in general Is It The Sea? only adds to Oldham’s ever-increasing enigma.