For the music fan flicking through the ever-growing list of new releases each week, this album may inadvertently set off a couple of the subconscious ‘ignore’ triggers that help whittle down the list into a more manageable form. Firstly, it’s a collaboration album, and those are inherently less important than when artists work alone, right? Secondly, and even more damagingly, it’s a live album, and everybody knows those are just for super fans, aren’t they? Well, in this case at least, absolutely not, on both counts.
Following on from their 2012 collaboration The Marble Downs, folk rock wizards Trembling Bells and indie troubadour Bonnie Prince Billy went out on a brief tour together. Gathered here are the highlights of their set, which were granted a limited digital only release in 2013, and now find a (hopefully) much wider audience. If you have only a rudimentary familiarity with the two artists involved, you might be expecting cutesy, brooding acoustic folk arrangements, but anyone who has taken in the Trembling Bells live experience since their 2010 album Abandoned Love will know how wrong that expectation would be. Leading on from drummer and band founder Alex Neilson’s experimental background (he has regularly collaborated with Richard Youngs and Six Organs of Admittance, amongst many others), they are a playful, dazzling, psychedelic array on stage. It is easy to see why Will Oldham wanted in.
Opening the set, and the record, is a splicing together of Oldham’s 66, from his 2000 EP Get On Jolly, and the Bells’ Just Like The Rainbow, from 2011’s The Constant Pageant. It is an immediate blast of squalling guitar from the cosmic Mike Hastings, skittering cymbals from the octopedal Alex Neilson and church organ keys from the angel-larynxed Lavinia Blackwall. As the cover art suggests, there is a lot happening here, and this opener sets the pace for the 43 minute runtime.
Unsurprisingly, the setlist is dominated by The Marble Downs, although these tracks are no more seamless in their fusion of the two artists’ sounds than any others, which is testament to the personal and artistic understanding that the two parties had cultivated in their relatively short time together. Curiously, what The Marble Downs tracks have, particularly Excursions into Assonance and the pristine set closer Love Is A Velvet Noose, is a stronger sense of control, which likely owes more to the nature of that album’s ornate, decorative production than anything else.
Counter-intuitively, the points where this record really takes off are during renditions of tracks from Trembling Bells’ own records. Love Made An Outlaw Of My Heart is loose and daring, with Hastings’ cascading guitar duelling for pace with Neilson and bassist Simon Shaw’s careening rhythm section. And yet burrow through the beautiful disarray, and at the centre of the stage you find an honest and embracing duet between Oldham and Blackwall that offers the set’s warmest and longest lasting highlight.
A suite of Bells originals near the climax of the record proves the consummate ease with which this band can transition between mood, pace and style. But it also demonstrates how naturally Oldham was able to fit into their line-up, and how strong the bond of trust was between artists. Yes, the classic juxtaposition of his broken lower register and Blackwall’s medieval, impossibly beautiful siren is a trick that will never stop working, but this live album succeeds primarily because these two parties understood each other in an invisible but profound way. This recording captures two great artists performing as one, and is absolutely worth your time.